Tips for Talking to Anxious Children About Shootings and Violence

Talking to Anxious children about shootings and violence.png

Let me start out by saying that this is not the post I want to be writing today. To date, I have “re-published” this post several times since it was originally written on December 3, 2015. Every time there is a school shooting, a shooting at a festival, nightclub, place of worship, or other place that society deems “safe,” I spend the day trying to wrap my head around how I’m going to address it in my work.

How can I help anxious mothers send their children off to school knowing that fearing a gunman is not irrational in today’s America. And how can they help comfort their own children who are scared? How can I look the children I work with in the eye and help them process something like what happened today in Florida?

Needless to say, I am tired of it. Something has to change, but until it does, I will continue to provide a safe place to talk about it and to support those affected.

And, if you are as tired of this as I am, consider a donation to Sandy Hook Promise, whose mission is to prevent gun-related deaths due to crime, suicide and accidental discharge so that no other parent experiences the senseless, horrific loss of their child.

So, once again here are 5 tips for talking to anxious (and not anxious) children about shooting and senseless violence.

(Originally posted on 12/3/15)

On a daily basis I work with children whose anxiety is heightened by the senseless acts of violence that have been occurring around the world. While there is a lot of information regarding how to talk with children regarding terrorism and other acts of violence, I haven’t come across too much information on how to talk to children who are already suffering from anxiety.

If you are parenting a child with anxiety chances are you already work overtime anticipating your child’s reaction to daily stressors, so, when senseless acts of violence occur you probably worry about how this will affect your child. You may try to turn off the TV, limit and more closely monitor screen time, and not watch the news. While hiding the problem may seem like the easy answer, it is not the best one, and can increase your child’s sense of fear and anxiety when they learn the truth.

Below are 5 tips for talking with your anxious child following an act of terrorism

1.    Help restore their sense of safety at home.

Following shootings anxious children often believe that someone is going to break into their house and harm them. It is important to remind them that they are safe and that they are not currently at risk of getting hurt. Walk them around the house and show them how you stay safe at home. Let them lock doors and windows themselves, and if you haven’t already done so create a safety plan with them so that if they are scared or something bad does happen they know how to handle it.

2.    Use appropriate language and concepts.

While it is important to be honest with your children, make sure you are doing so using age appropriate language and concepts. Children with anxiety are already more fearful that something bad may happen to them. It is important to help them understand the difference between what is real and what is fantasy. Help them stay in the here and now and not create scenarios that are not real by using simple language and concrete examples.

When talking about the act of violence emphasize facts. For example, if you are talking about a school shooting, use the name and location of the school, so the child does not begin to fantasize that it happened at their school.

For younger children being brief and simple is enough. Remind them that trusted adults are there to protect them and help keep them safe. Use examples that they can relate to or understand.

For older school aged children who have a better understanding of the impact of violence follow their lead. Answer their questions as directly as possible and remind them to speak up if they see something out of the norm. Do not try to introduce concepts that are too complex or beyond their cognitive ability as this will increase their anxiety and decrease their sense of safety.

3.    Be honest about your own feelings.

Acts of terrorism make us question our safety; they scare us and make us fearful of daily activities. This type of reaction is appropriate and normal, and your children should know that. By disclosing your own feelings of sadness and fear you are helping them understand that their feelings are justified.

4.    Make time to talk

Set aside time each day to check in. You don’t have to talk directly about the act of terrorism, but check in regarding their day and how they felt. This creates an opportunity for them to share their fears if they need to.

5.    Maintain your routine.

Changing your routine because of an act of terrorism reinforces anxiety. It is important that you keep your routine consistent so that your children feel secure. If you have to change routines for safety reasons make sure to talk through the changes so that it doesn’t create additional worries.

And most importantly remind your child that they are loved and that you are there for them no matter what.

**Always remember to observe your child closely following a traumatic event. If their symptoms of anxiety remain increased and they are unable to cope with them on their own make sure to seek the help of a professional. Lori Allen, MFT specializes in treating school-aged children with anxiety, as well as offering parenting support and working with pregnant and postpartum moms. If you are in the Southern California area and need help please give us a call today at (818) 917-6596.