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Life in Scary Times: How to Ease Your Child's Fears

Sniper shootings in the Washington, DC, area have once again brought violence and terror close to home. How do you explain such cruel and pointless acts to a child? How do you ease your little one's fears when you're terrified yourself?

We asked noted child psychologist Michael Thompson, Ph.D., for advice. Here are his strategies for helping parents talk about the shootings.

1. Stay calm for your child's sake. "It's important not to get sucked into an aura of panic and anxiety. Kids can't assess risk on their own, because they don't know enough about the world, and so it's parents who have to filter the risks for them. You can't be nuts every day, because that's profoundly unnerving for your kids. Their fear comes not from reading the paper or watching tv--it comes from your reaction. As an adult, you have to get a grip on yourself if you possibly can."

2. Be realistic about the risks. "During the period of time this sniper has been shooting in the Washington, DC, area, there could have been 2 or 3 kids killed in the same area in car crashes. But we don't stop driving our cars because we might kill our kids. We don't get anxious about those day-to-day risks, and so our kids don't get anxious. This sniper situation worries us because it's scary and uncertain, and because this person is very interested in terrorizing us, but the risk is statistically tiny."

3. Be straightforward. "Don't deny that the situation is scary. You might say, 'There's a bad man out there trying to scare people. We will keep you safe. I'm trying to find my own courage. He's trying to make us afraid and I'm going to try not to be afraid.' Model that for your child."

4. Explain the situation in your own terms. "If your child asks why this sniper is shooting people, use the language you're comfortable with. I'm a psychologist, so I might tell my kids he's mentally ill. If you're religious, you might say he's evil. The important thing is to make it clear that, while there are some who are hurtful and dangerous, there are many, many more good people than there are bad people in this world. Kids need to know that there's a vast majority who are trying to stop this person--and they will stop him."

More Pointers on Helping Kids Cope

The National Association of School Psychologists, located in Bethesda, Maryland, near the site of the sniper attacks, has these recommendations for parents:

1. Watch for signs of distress. Depending on their age, children may not express their concerns verbally. Signs of heightened anxiety include:

  • Refusing to go to school and excessive clinging
  • Persistent fears related to the shootings
  • Worry that loved ones might get hurt
  • Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep, or bedwetting
  • Irritability and loss of concentration
  • Increased agitation
  • Being easily startled and jumpy
  • New or unusual behavior problems
  • Physical complaints for which a physical cause cannot be found
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Sadness, listlessness, or decreased activity
  • Preoccupation with death or violence

Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek the help of mental health professional if you are at all concerned.

2. Keep your explanations age-appropriate. Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their daily lives will not change. Upper elementary and early middle school children are more likely to ask questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need help separating reality from fantasy. Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence and threats to safety in schools and society. They should be encouraged to share suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. They may want to do something to help the victims and affected community. For all children, encourage them to talk about their thoughts and feelings. Be a good listener!

(Talking to a child under 5? Read our article "How to Soothe a Worried Toddler or Preschooler.")

3. Focus on your children during this time. Tell them you love them and everything will be okay. Try to help them understand what has happened, keeping in mind their developmental level.

4. Make time to talk with your children. Remember if you do not talk to your children about this incident someone else will. Take some time and determine what you wish to say.

5. Stay close to your children. Your physical presence will reassure them and give you the opportunity to monitor their reaction. Many children will want actual physical contact. Give plenty of hugs. Let them sit close to you, and make sure to take extra time at bedtime to cuddle and to reassure them that they are loved and safe.

6. Limit your child's television viewing of these events. If they must watch, watch with them for a brief time; then turn the set off. Don't sit mesmerized re-watching the same events over and over again.

7. Maintain a normal routine. To the extent possible stick to your family's normal routine for dinner, homework, chores, bedtime, etc., but don't be inflexible. Children may have a hard time concentrating on schoolwork or falling asleep at night.

8. Spend extra time reading or playing quiet games with your children before bed. These activities are calming, foster a sense of closeness and security, and reinforce a sense of normalcy. Spend more time tucking them in. Let them sleep with a light on if they ask for it.

9. Safeguard your children's physical health. Stress can take a physical toll on children as well as adults. Make sure your children get appropriate sleep, exercise, and nutrition.

10. Consider praying or thinking hopeful thoughts for the victims and their families. It may be a good time to take your children to your place of worship, write a poem, or draw a picture to help your child express their feelings and feel that they are somehow supporting the victims and their families.

11. Find out what resources your school has in place to help children cope. Most schools will stay open and are in fact a good place for children to maintain a sense of connectedness to people they know and trust. Some children will find being in lockdown mode frightening or unsettling. Reassure them that it is very unlikely that something bad will happen at their school but that adults are being extra cautious and that the emergency procedures help keep everyone safe. Schools should also have a plan for making counseling available to children and adults who need it. Don't force your children to go to school if they are frightened.

10/02

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