Helping Children Cope with Scary News

From mass shootings to terrorist attacks, real-life events can leave even the steadiest among us feeling anxious and frightened. Now, imagine that you are a kid.

Edward M. Pickens, MD, medical director at UNC Pediatrics at Southpoint, offered these six 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. Offer reassurance, not anxiety.

Parents are the main source of security for children, Dr. Pickens says. 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.

4. 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.

“Give them a forum,” Dr. Pickens says. “For the majority of children, having that discussion will be adequate in helping them cope.”

5. Know when to seek outside help.

Some kids have trouble bouncing back from distressing news.

“Are they constantly worrying?” Dr. Pickens says. “Not able to complete schoolwork? Not able to sleep or not able to eat? Are they irritable?” If anxiety seems to be interfering with your child’s daily life, he suggests that parents seek help from a therapist or counselor.

6. 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 a walk around the block or 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.”

If you are concerned about your child, talk to his or her doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.