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Helping kids cope with the barrage of scary news

Rescuers remove rubble from a flattened building in search of survivors after an earthquake, in Mexico City on Tuesday. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

As an adult, if you aren’t a little bit anxious right now, you aren’t paying attention.  Hurricanes, fires, floods, earthquakes, DACA, North Korea and events like Charlottesville and the London subway bombing are deeply disturbing, if not outright devastating.

For parents, the intensity of the 2017 news cycle has presented yet another layer of anxiety: How can we help our children understand what’s happening in the world, when we don’t understand it ourselves?

Even kids can have a role in assisting after disasters. Here’s how.

It’s disconcerting for children to live in a country where each day’s news is more shocking than the last. It’s a struggle for them to understand natural disasters, and a bigger struggle to understand why some adults are behaving in ways that children have long understood to be unacceptable. How can parents help children make sense of the nonsensical?

Helping children understand complicated situations is no easy task. It’s made more difficult when we ourselves are paralyzed by the pressure to do it perfectly, which can lead us to avoid the conversation completely.

But children notice our emotional state even when we try to mask it. When we avoid speaking about what’s happening in the world, we often leave children to make sense of scary information they overhear without the cushion of a reassuring interpretation wrapped in a safe relationship.

I’m not advocating for inviting children into adult conversations. What, how and when we share are determined by contextual factors like a child’s temperament and developmental stage. That said, children are usually taking in more than we think they are.  My co-worker’s 6-year-old daughter asked her this week, “What’s a debt ceiling?”

Our best bet is to have a strong support system in place and have an outlet for our own anxiety, so that it doesn’t leak into our relationships with our children. Everyone’s self-care list is different, but prioritizing time with a good friend, meditation or exercise can help you manage your own stress and anxiety and position you to be most capable in helping your child.

Why self-care is an important part of parenting

Here are five ways to talk with your children about current events, even if you yourself are overwhelmed:

  1. Check in often, but from a place of assurance, not anxiety. Children notice our anxiety and it feeds theirs. Checking in with them from a place of assurance instead might sound something like: “There’s so much craziness in the news — what’s caught your attention? What do you make of what you’re hearing? What are your friends talking about? What worries you?  What makes you feel hopeful?”
  1. Remind them of the values that guide your family. Tell them what you believe and why. Tell them instability always brings an opportunity for kindness. Remind them that when darkness intrudes, it’s an invitation to bring more light into the world. Acknowledge that there is indeed a lot of suffering — but there is also a lot of helping. You might say, “When things feel shaky in the world, our family shows up. We stand up for what we think is right. We look out for people. We look for opportunities to express our value for compassion, inclusion and respect.”
  1. Model boundaries and choices. Show children that you are in charge of your media intake. Much of today’s media is designed to seize attention: Feeding the fears of their audience is one powerful way they do that. When you switch off the news, narrate what you’re doing: “I’m turning this off. When I watch too much, it stresses me out. When I focus on what I can do to help, it makes me feel useful.” This tells your children it’s okay to be stressed and shows that people can choose how much information to let into their world when they’re overwhelmed.
  1. Don’t minimize fear or anxiety. Always make space for whatever children are feeling. If you need to set a limit, tie it to the expression of the feeling, not the feeling itself. “I can tell you’re really upset, but you can’t take it out on your brother. What you can do is talk to me about it, or go for a run.”  Sometimes feelings come out sideways: Helping children understand that, and offering avenues to express those feelings directly, are key elements in fostering their social and emotional health. It’s also important to validate fear or anxiety“How you are feeling right now makes sense to me. I remember when I was a kid … I was so scared, but it turned out okay. What helped me feel better was … How can I help you feel better? Do you remember what worked last time?”
  1. Keep rituals and routines intact. Children rely on routines and predictability for a sense of safety within their little universe. Build in comforting rituals that generate energy, laughter, joy and a sense of purpose.

You know your family best. Your communication choices right now will be defined by factors like your family’s culture, race, history and beliefs. But one thing is certain: Our children are growing up in a time of heightened anxiety. Anything we do to help them make sense of what’s happening will serve them at this moment, and long into the future.

Michelle Kinder is the executive director of the Momentous Institute, a school and counseling program focusing on social-emotional health. She’s a family therapist with more than 20 years in the mental health field and an OpEd Project Fellow.

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