Editor’s note: This article originally ran Oct. 21, 2019 and was updated Oct. 17, 2022.
From mass shootings and war to deadly natural disasters, real-life events can leave even the steadiest among us feeling anxious and frightened. Now, imagine that you are a kid.
“Children may not be able to process or fully express their feelings when a tragedy happens,” says Jim Bedford, MD, a UNC Health child psychiatrist. “Parents and caregivers can help them feel less overwhelmed by talking to them about it in a developmentally appropriate way.”
Dr. Bedford and Edward M. Pickens, MD, medical director at UNC Pediatrics at Southpoint, offered these eight tips for helping your child cope with scary news.
1. If possible, shield preschool-age children from distressing news.
There’s no reason to expose a preschooler to frightening events, Dr. Pickens says. He advises parents to be careful about what they listen to in the car and to consider what topics they discuss within earshot of their little ones.
“We create this alternate reality for preschoolers, with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny,” he says. “It’s perfectly appropriate not to get into reality with them.”
2. Get ahead of the news curve.
By the time children are in kindergarten, all bets are off, Dr. Pickens says. Kids become more sophisticated, and they are apt to talk. All it takes is for one kid to hear about a scary news event, and word will spread.
“You want to get ahead of the news,” he says. “You want to be the one who tells the child. Kids are going to be talking about it.”
3. Limit news exposure.
While it’s important to stay informed, Dr. Bedford recommends limiting how much your child is exposed to media coverage of a traumatic event.
“Hearing about the event over and over can be distressing to children,” Dr. Bedford says. “If you have children who are school-age or older, it’s important to address the topic but don’t dwell on it.”
4. Offer reassurance, not anxiety.
Parents are the main source of security for children, Dr. Pickens says. Try to remain composed so that your child feels reassured.
“If their source of strength appears to be faltering, that can make it harder for them,” he says.
5. Talk about emotions
It’s OK to admit to your child that you are sad or angry about what has taken place. Being open with your feelings and having that conversation can offer children an opportunity to talk about their fears and feelings, too. Despite parents’ best efforts to make their children feel safe, it’s natural for them to feel like a traumatic event could happen to them, too, Dr. Bedford says.
“Give them a forum,” Dr. Pickens says. “For the majority of children, having that discussion will be adequate in helping them cope.”
6. Know when to seek outside help.
Some kids have trouble bouncing back from distressing news. Dr. Bedford says your child’s reaction to a traumatic event will vary by age and developmental level.
Children in preschool or kindergarten may experience separation anxiety, trouble falling asleep or more frequent tantrums. Elementary and middle school students may have trouble concentrating, new behavioral problems, nightmares and stomach aches, even if they aren’t expressing that they are distressed. Teenagers are more likely to become anxious, withdrawn, lonely or depressed.
“Is your child constantly worrying?” Dr. Pickens says. “Not able to complete schoolwork? Not able to sleep or not able to eat? Are they irritable?”
If you notice any of these symptoms interfering with your child’s daily life, seek help from your primary care physician or a therapist or guidance counselor. If you are worried that your child may harm themselves or others, seek help immediately.
7. Find ways to help yourself cope.
Anxiety has always been a part of parenthood, but 20 years ago parents weren’t talking about safety the way they are today, Dr. Pickens says. School shootings in particular can be especially distressing for parents.
To ensure that they are helping their children as best they can, parents need to take care of their mental health, too. That could mean engaging in anxiety-relieving activities, such as taking a walk around the block or pursuing a hobby, or seeking professional help.
“It’s very demoralizing when things are out of your control,” Dr. Pickens says. “If you need help for dealing with your own emotional concerns, get it.
8. Make your child aware of the danger of guns.
Gun violence has unfortunately become a more frequent part of daily life, Dr. Bedford says.
“Children have lockdown drills at school and they hear about various shootings happening in schools, neighborhoods, shopping malls—all parts of the community,” Dr. Bedford says.
It’s important for parents to make sure their children understand how dangerous guns can be and the harm they can cause. Parents who are gun owners should implement safe gun practices at home.
“If you have guns, they should be kept unloaded, locked and separated from ammunition,” Dr. Bedford says. “Keep them far out of reach of children.”
If you are concerned about your child, talk to his or her doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.