The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to help middle schoolers living in a sometimes scary place

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Every morning before school, my father would toast me a blueberry waffle and slide newspaper articles across the table to me. He would patiently explain complicated topics like apartheid or perestroika. He thought it was completely reasonable to discuss the Lebanese Civil War or the Iran Hostage Crisis with his 8-year-old daughter.

This was back in the 1980s, an era with its share of terrorism and social difficulties. We read the paper in the morning and watched Peter Jennings after dinner, but we didn’t have devices or perpetual access to news coverage.

I assumed I would take a similar approach when I became a parent, but the world changed shortly after my son was born in the summer of 2001. I never would have predicted that in time I would become wary of exposing my children to unfiltered current events. I certainly didn’t envision that in my future role as a school counselor, I would need to reassure middle school students concerned about jihadists and school shootings.

I was napping with my son on 9/11 when my mother-in-law called me sobbing. She had just spoken briefly to her daughter, who was seven months pregnant and worked a few blocks from the World Trade Center. From her office window, my sister-in-law had watched the second plane hit and explode. When her entire office started screaming, she began the long descent down 17 flights of stairs. With the complete shutdown of phone service, we had no way of knowing whether she had found her way to safety. It was hours before we learned that she had emerged, safe but disoriented, in a fog of ash and smoke and dust.

After that, the bad news kept coming. Here in Washington D.C., someone started mailing anthrax spores to senators. The following year, the Beltway sniper attacks paralyzed our community. Over time, access to new technologies seemed to magnify each new tragedy, repeatedly exposing us to deeply troubling images. Sandy Hook. Downed planes. The Paris terror attacks and the San Bernardino shooting. As a mother, I became wary of turning on CNN before my kids went to sleep. And as a school counselor, it became clear that I would need to change my approach. It was no longer enough to provide preventive mental health care and responsive services in times of crisis. Many of my students, all born in the three years following 9/11, seemed stuck in a perpetual state of heightened vigilance. I needed to offer new, reactive coping strategies.

Even without the constant exposure to terrible news, middle school students often feel off-kilter. The physical, social, and emotional changes can be overwhelming. Academic demands increase just when they feel less connected to their parents. Although they have a heightened capacity for complex thought and self-expression, that comes with a healthy dose of self-consciousness. As they navigate friendships and societal expectations, they toggle back and forth between confidence and insecurity.

These 12- to 14-year-olds are a simmering stew of emotions, and for many, fear has been added to the pot. Some of my students have memorized procedures from school emergency handbooks. They know to face the wall during a tornado or crouch under a desk in an earthquake. They know how to shelter in place if there is a chemical or biological attack. They also know how to lock down their classrooms and hide in a closet if a crazed shooter storms the building with a semiautomatic gun. This is their normal.

Our teens’ lives in the age of shootings and lockdown drills

Parents want guidance to help their children digest the constant stream of information. I tell them we can initiate conversation to make sure they know how to sort fact from misinformation. As we open a dialogue, we can listen to their fears without minimizing them. At the same time, we can reassure them that they are not in danger simply because they feel afraid. When we talk about complex issues like religious conflict, we can consider their maturity and sensitivity. We also can limit their exposure to upsetting images by monitoring their screen time and online exploration.

On a broader level, we can help children live joyfully even when the world feels like a dangerous place. This is the tougher problem, and there are no easy answers. From a neurological and physiological perspective, all this fear and anxiety isn’t good for kids. It hinders their ability to focus and learn, to feel empathy and self-compassion, and to manage their feelings.

I am increasingly drawn to mindfulness strategies for their potential to help children stay rooted in the present moment. I have students blow bubbles and toss balls to demonstrate that thoughts are transient. They place stuffed animals on their chests to practice deep breathing. They create and shake jars of glitter and picture their feelings settling along with the glitter pooling at the bottom. They write their concerns in Sharpies on balloons and bat them back and forth, a physical reminder that they can neutrally observe their thoughts and return their focus to the task at hand. I sometimes have students hold melting ice cubes to demonstrate that they can sit with discomfort. Invariably, students report that the simple acts of playing, moving, and having fun help them feel better.

At home, parents also can incorporate mindfulness techniques. The game of Jenga, for example, can open conversation. As our children pull out each piece, we can encourage them to identify negative thoughts. We also can introduce family floor time, simply spending 15 minutes hanging out and talking in a technology-free zone. When our children are frustrated or irritable, we can settle our own thoughts before engaging in discussion. Once we are calm, we can observe and state their emotional expression, validate their feelings, and help redirect them to something else. This might involve playing catch, taking a walk, listening to music, or making a snack together. By taking this approach, we can help our children self-regulate their emotions.

Ultimately, there is no magic wand. There are days when it feels like I am trying to plug a geyser with my thumb. We can’t shut out the world, but that’s okay. Like my father, I believe there is value in talking about global concerns. We want our children to become critical thinkers, to understand how other people live. Our challenge will be helping them process events we can’t make sense of ourselves.

Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor and professional school counselor in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.

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