How Parents Can Handle Their Emotions In a Scary Situation

Staying calm during a frightening situation that involves our kids can be tough, but it's important. Here are ways parents can train their brain to chill when faced with the unexpected.

A mother and her daughter white water raft together.

Courtesy of Lindsey Getz

Most of us would like to think we'd stay calm in a scary situation. But a summer whitewater rafting trip on the New River Gorge in West Virginia with my family showed me how challenging it could be to control emotions when things go wrong. Although we received thorough instructions on what to do if our two-person raft capsized, when my 12-year-old daughter and I hit moderate, irregular waves—aka Class III rapids—and tipped over, I forgot everything I'd learned.

Panicked, my only thought was finding my daughter amongst the chaos of the whitecaps. I stayed vertical instead of getting my feet off the ground, where they could get caught on a rock. When I found her, she was floating on her back, hands on her life vest, toes pointed to the sky, and a massive grin on her face—exactly what our guide had said to do.

I wasn't happy with how I handled that situation, but my reaction was not unusual. Marla W. Deibler, Psy.D., ABPP, founder and executive director of the Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, says that anxiety is a natural response to a scary situation as our bodies enter fight-or-flight mode. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase, says Dr. Deibler, making it harder to think or problem-solve in the same manner that we would when we are calm.

It got me thinking: Is there a way parents can train their brains to be calmer when faced with the unexpected? Experts say, yes.

Here are things we can do to increase the odds that we'll react in a wise way.

Be Prepared and Create a Plan

While we can't anticipate every scary situation we'll ever be faced with, creating and practicing a response plan for certain unexpected events is one way to stay calmer should an actual emergency occur. Dr. Deibler says that during a scary situation, we tend to shift into "autopilot." This is why well-rehearsed responses like fire drills work; they don't require extra thought.

"Taking a CPR or first aid class, regularly checking our smoke detectors, and stocking the house with bandages and ice packs are all ways that we take steps to prepare for a scary situation," Dr. Deibler explains. "Being ready can help us feel calmer when we do have to respond."

Staying up to date with basic knowledge of how to handle a medical emergency can also help parents be better prepared, says Darshan Patel, M.D., section chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Maria Fareri Children's Hospital, part of Westchester Medical Center Health Network. That information does change over time, so regularly checking in about the latest guidelines is important.

Knowing the "next steps" for common, at-home medical emergencies like cuts, falls, and choking can help parents control their emotions and make good choices should these scary situations arise. Keep up with current recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and communicate with your child's pediatrician, suggests Dr. Patel.

Practice Mindfulness

Another key way to train our brains to be calmer in a scary situation is to practice mindfulness and meditation, says Sarah Lowe, Ph.D., associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at Yale School of Public Health. Setting aside time to work on deep breathing and calming our minds can make these exercises more natural for us.

"As we master these abilities, we will be more likely to implement them in a scary situation," she says. "Taking a moment to breathe and focus during an emergency can help us make better choices and have an overall better response."

Dr. Deibler agrees. She says that my panic in the rafting situation had to do with my brain catastrophizing what might happen to my daughter if I didn't find her quickly. Had I been practicing mindfulness, I likely would have been more focused on the present moment, as opposed to the "what ifs."

"That means paying attention to what is going on around you: What you see, hear, feel, and what you are actually observing," explains Dr. Deibler. "As adults, we are more likely to catastrophize and get caught up in the danger, and that can take over our ability to reason."

In the case of rafting, my daughter wasn't thinking about the worst-case scenario but was simply focused on what the guide had told her to do.

Reflect on an Undesirable Response

Finally, when emotions get the best of us during a scary situation, the experts say it helps to talk to our kids about how it was handled.

"Being mindful after the fact and transparent with the kids that perhaps you didn't handle a scary situation the way you wanted to is helpful in being able to manage their anxieties or how they respond themselves," says Dr. Lowe. "Along with that, praising them for staying calm and collected is also important. It's all about modeling awareness and behavior."

Dr. Lowe also says to talk to kids about what can be done differently the next time something scary happens. Use it as a learning opportunity. "If you panicked during a scary situation and your children saw that, don't pretend it didn't happen," she says. "Talking about emotional experiences is good for everyone and will contribute to their own mastery of how to deal with threats or danger."

While my daughter has enjoyed teasing me about how I was panicking while she was following our guide's instructions, I think it was a good learning experience for both of us. I expressed how proud I was of her for staying calm and promised I would do the same thing next time—that is, assuming I can get up the courage to go again!

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