Anxiety-provoking headlines are everywhere — in newspapers, online and on television. With any tragedy or disaster, it’s best to present information in a way that helps children cope in a healthy manner. UnityPoint Health Behavioral Health Consultant Lana Herteen, MA, LMHC identifies age-appropriate techniques to ease anxious feelings in children.
Easing Anxiety & Stress in Children
Limit TV exposure. While it’s important to stay informed, news reports are designed for adults. Young children may not understand the reporter’s words, but they’ll pick up on the intensity from background noise or the sound of fear in someone’s voice. This may trigger anxiety even if adults think kids aren’t listening.
Ideally, it’s best for children of all ages to first hear about major crisis events from their parents or caregivers, so the information can be shared in a manner that won’t overwhelm them.
Here’s how you can handle discussing current events according to your child’s age.
Children in Preschool
Keep it simple. Explain basic facts without excess detail. Then, balance your language with a message of hope, emphasizing the good revealed despite the tragic event. Remember, it’s less about what you say and more about your tone as well as nonverbal behavior that’ll either calm concerns or fuel fear.
“Most importantly, we, as adults, need to regulate our own emotions. Kids will take cues from your level of intensity and mirror what they see and hear. This can be challenging, as we’re also dealing with our own reactions. But, we need to calm ourselves to send a reassuring message to children that they’re safe, and the world is going to be OK. This doesn’t mean we pretend the tragedy didn’t happen. Rather, we focus on efforts that ensure safety,” Herteen says.
Make sure your child knows it’s OK to feel uneasy, you’re there for them and are willing to answer their questions.
Children in Elementary School
Elementary-age kids have a wide range of functioning, so parents need to adapt messaging accordingly. It’s important to offer enough information to satisfy a child’s need for understanding while leaving out graphic details.
“If you feel your child is ready to watch the news, try recording it ahead of time. That gives you room to review it first. You can also more easily pause the recording to have a discussion on what they’re seeing and get a sense of how they’re understanding the information. Elementary-age kids tend to worry about others as well as wonder if something could happen to them,” Herteen says.
Children in Middle & High School
Communicating with older children can be tricky given most tweens and teens have access to information via social media, making it hard to get ahead of the message.
“It’s important to practice ‘screen hygiene,’ meaning setting and enforcing limits to social media. Less screen time opens opportunity for in-person connection. When you demonstrate you want to hear what kids have to say, it invites a positive connection serving to inform adults about what kids need – both for information and emotional support,” Herteen says.
Start by asking these questions:
- What do you think of the current event?
- Tell me what you already know.
- How does the crisis make you feel?
- What questions do you have about this event?
“The hardest part is remembering to pause after asking a question to allow enough time for your teen to think through their thoughts and feelings. Resist the urge to jump in to tell your opinion. If you find your teen isn’t receptive to talking, check in again later. Timing can make a big difference. Older kids don’t like to acknowledge fear and anxiety, so they may initially push back. Casually checking in later respects their need for healthy control and sends the unspoken message you care enough to follow up,” Herteen says.
7 Ways to Reduce Anxiety & Stress in Children
During times of uncertainty, it’s best to stick with the basics to keep everyone feeling grounded.
- Keep a daily schedule. Post it on the refrigerator or somewhere for everyone in the house to see. Structure and consistency have a calming effect. Knowing what’s going to happen next can reduce anxiety.
- Involve kids in making plans. Adults and children of all ages have a normal need for healthy control. Give kids two or three dinner options and let them decide what the family will eat, then let them help follow a recipe. Older kids might enjoy being empowered to lead the family in a yoga session – even if it ends with minimal stretching and everyone laughing, mission accomplished!
- Check in 1:1. Allow kids private time with you to ask questions and share worries. Adults don’t have to have all the answers. It’s OK to just acknowledge stress in kids and offer reassurance that police, doctors, lawmakers etc. are figuring things out. Simply connecting on a meaningful level can give kids what they need to feel emotionally supported.
- Spark creativity. Urge kids to try something new – bake a cake, follow a painting tutorial or design a board game of their own with a theme of their choice. When you give kids permission and encouragement to “think outside the box,” they can surprise us.
- Go outside. Never underestimate the value of getting fresh air and moving your bodies together.
- Cut each other slack. When your 4th grader is melting down over not being able to find her sock, recognize it as a stress reaction and label it to facilitate understanding, “You are feeling stress. After we find your sock, how about cuddling up together with a good book?” You can enjoy some calm time together and if you both fall asleep; well, you both got a much-needed nap.
- Don’t forget to laugh. Humor can relieve tension and bring people together. Let kids read jokes to the family or play a silly game of charades. Letting kids see your goofy side can get the laughs rolling.
Ultimately, parents know their children best. If your child demonstrates changes that are out of character, these may be signs they’re stressed or anxious and would benefit from professional guidance. Contact your child's primary care provider to learn where they recommend you seek mental health support.
Signs Your Child Isn’t Coping Well
- Sleep problems. This includes nightmares or trouble falling asleep.
- Physical changes. Be cautious of complaints about headaches or feeling tired. Take notice if children are eating less or more than normal.
- Behavior alterations. These changes can include social regression, a more demanding demeanor or substance abuse for teens.
- Emotional difficulties. Watch for undue sadness, depression, anxiety or fears.
It’s not always easy to tell if your child is responding in a typical way to crisis events. If you have questions, contact your child’s provider.