8 ways to calm kids' jitters in a scary world

Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Radiation leaks. Nuclear meltdowns.  If you are feeling a bit jittery about the news lately, imagine how our kids must feel.

We know that constantly hearing about troubling world events does more than just increase children’s anxieties -- it can also cloud their views about the world. The recent current events around the world pose additional parental concerns: How do we calm kids’ worries and answer their questions about news involving complicated topics like fuel rods, fission, uranium and nuclear energy?

Though we can’t shield our children from life's harsh realities, studies show that certain parent responses do make a big difference in helping kids adjust during tough times. Here are 8 ways ways parents can calm young jitters and help our children make sense of troubling news events.

1. Kids mirror behavior so stay calmIn scary times, kids use our behavior as their model to copy. Remember, it’s not what you say about the news, but how you react that really makes the difference. It’s best to keep your emotions at bay. Security for younger kids is often better conveyed physically (rocking, hugging and touching) than with our words.

2. Be the family news director
Monitoring  what your child watches is always a good idea. But especially be aware of television that shows graphic images of tragedy. When in doubt, turn the television off. Studies show that even though kids may not have personally witnessed a tragedy, they can still be traumatized from viewing troubling news images.  A child’s age dictates what they can absorb.

Toddlers and preschoolers: Young children are easily traumatized with graphic images and can’t separate “real” from “fantasy.” They may interpret replayed news reports of a troubling event (such as a tsunami wave or a plane crashing) as additional attacks. Turn off the television.

School-age: Don’t overexpose your kids to TV coverage. Print coverage is preferable as a news source because images are not so graphic.

Tweens: A study of over 600 middle-school students found that that “late-breaking news without an adult there to comfort or explain” produced anxiety. Watch news reports with them to answer their questions. Don’t forget that your child may get news from digital sources such as cell phones, the web or an iPad. Monitor those sources as well.

3. Offer perspective and reassurance Don’t assume because your child isn’t asking questions that he isn’t concerned. Peers talk and often give inaccurate facts, which just increase anxieties. But there are some ways to discuss the news with your child and at same time offer reassurance.

Explain facts calmly and simply. Use conversation starters such as, “There was troubling news in the world today. What are you friends saying?” Or “What have you heard?” Too much information can backfire. Instead, give small bits of information on a “need-to-know basis.” The “rewind method” can help clarify that your child understands your message: “Now you tell me what I just said.” It’s always best to hold short, ongoing chats about tough new subjects instead of one long marathon. Don’t forget to leave the conversation with: “I’m here anytime you want to chat.”

Respect feelings. You want your child to feel comfortable sharing his concerns or worries —whatever they may be. You can tell them, “I’m sad, too!”  Hint: Don’t try to reason your child’s fears away. His worries are real, but your calm reassurance with the right facts will help.

Be age appropriate. Gear your responses to your child’s age, needs and maturity and what he needs to know. Try to anticipate your child’s queries and concerns.

4. Filter when explaining scary newsWhen news is frightening, kids of all ages need to be reassured of safety.

For younger kids: Use simple, understandable terms and don’t overwhelm with too many details. One sentence is often enough. Be prepared to hear the same question again and again, which is how a young child processes new information.  Younger kids are egocentric, so you want them to know that harm won’t come to them. “That big wave did hurt a lot of people, but it is hundreds of miles away from here.”

For older kids: Adolescents can discuss events on a more sophisticated level and may ask those “What will happen next?” type questions. Be prepared for more difficult questions about complicated news coverage like: “What is nuclear energy?” or “Is nuclear power safe?” (And be ready to learn about radiation, nuclear reactors and fuel rods from your teen!) You can also turn certain news events into teachable moments.  “Let’s go online and read what a reactor plant is.”

5. Share stories of hope, compassion
While the headlines feature devastation, war and death, there are glorious stories of heroism, cooperation and goodness. It’s important to assure your children that there’s more to the world than destruction and sorrow.  Find the positive stories in the world to share with your family. For instance, discuss the cooperation and resilience of the Japanese. Or news about a rescue: “Did you hear about the grandmother and her grandson in Japan who were found after nine days? The rescuers never gave up!”

6. Empower kids with ways to help
One proven way to reduce fears is to brainstorm ideas as a family and find ways for kids to help victims. Consider:

Draw or write letters: Young children can draw or write letters that convey concern to Japanese school children.

Create care packages: Help your kids put together a “care package” (a teddy bear, crayons, coloring book) and send to a child in Haiti or Japan.

Make donations: Older kids can start a clothing drive, collect sleeping bags, raise funds with friends for the Red Cross, or gather all the coins to make a donation.  

7. Assess family’s emotional pulse
Keep a pulse of your child’s worries and find what helps your them relax, whether it’s listening to soothing music or having backrubs. Or do tension-releasing activities your entire family can do together: go for walks or bike rides, pray or meditate, curl up and read books together, or watch humorous videos. Regular family meal or bedtime rituals help boost security and reduce anxiety.

8. Watch for anxiety signs
You should be concerned if anxiety signs continue to last or increase.  Get the help of a mental health professional if your child:

•              Shows feelings of helplessness or hopelessness•              Has behavior regression: acting out, suddenly clingy or withdrawn•              Is quick to anger, easily upset•              Has fatigue, exhaustion or inability to focus•              Has difficulty sleeping, nightmares, or change in eating patterns•              Headache and nausea

Trauma, war, and natural disasters and are a sad but inevitable part of life. The good news is that by offering the right support parents can reduce kid jitters, help them learn ways to rebound and instill optimism about their future.