When Kids are the Target: Tips for Navigating Scary Times

The world can be a scary place; this is something that as adults – and more intensely as parents – we know all too well. Too often, an awful event happens and floods our TV’s, radios, and news feeds with images and words of something terrible that people have done to others. In the past year, it feels as though we have been reminded of this more than usual… between the school shooting in Parkland, school protests and teacher walk-outs across the country, and immigrant children being separated from their parents and held in cages, a lot has happened that hits close to home for parents and families.

Try as we might to keep our children innocent of the dangers of the world, the reality is that our children are seeing and hearing many of the same things as we are, though frequently without the context we have as adults. Giving that context to our children can be nerve-wracking in its own right (which is why we frequently avoid it), but there are some simple tips to remember that can make it easier to talk about it, and take some of the fear out of it for our kids.

1. “YOU ARE SAFE!”: The very first thing to do when something scary happens in the world is to remind our children that they are safe, and that there are lots of people who are only focused on keeping them that way. Just like adults, the first thing kids look for in a crisis is stability – in the form of people, places, or even things. Reassuring children that in the moment they are safe and secure goes a long way to diminishing stress.

2. BE HONEST: After safety, foremost in talking about a scary event is acknowledging that it is real. This might seem counterintuitive, but the fact is that as caregivers and educators, credibility is key, and pretending that a terrible event didn’t happen, even though it’s likely being mentioned all over the place, only damages that credibility. It’s better to be honest, but perhaps limit the details. Which leads us to our next tip…

3. KEEP IT SIMPLE: The key to talking about any difficult topic with kids is to keep the details simple. Kids want honesty, especially when things are scary or they don’t understand them, but at the same time, kids don’t need all the details, and some of course are going to be too much for even the most mature child to understand (and again, uncertainty is often the scariest part). So, keep your explanations brief and pointed. If your kids ask follow-up questions, answer them (remember #2, about being honest), but again, remember to focus on the details that they can handle.

4. CHECK IN FREQUENTLY: Just because an event has ended, or even that media coverage has stopped, does not mean that it’s been forgotten, and this can be especially true for kids (think of the last time your child saw a scary movie… how many days or weeks did it take for them to stop talking about it?) More than that, kids often are anxious about bringing up tough topics, and they may avoid it, even when they desperately want (or need) to talk about it. That said, make sure to gently check in with your kids regularly for a few weeks after a major event, to be sure that there aren’t lingering fears or concerns.

5. PLAN AN ACTION: Ultimately, when it comes to problems (of any size) kids are just like adults – words are great, but actions make them feel best. Actions help us to push back against the things that scare us. The main thing is figuring out the right sort of action; something that feels significant, but of course not triggering. One really great way to get kids involved is a community action – neighborhood projects or discussions are a good low-key way for families to get involved. Volunteering for a local nonprofit that is working on the issue at hand is another great way. Some parents may choose to get involved in protests (our family is all about this), but if that is how your family decides to be active, make sure that the demonstration you’re attending will be friendly and safe for the kids (otherwise, the demonstration can be as triggering as the initial event!)

Navigating scary events will forever be a challenge, and no checklist can ever totally prepare us for when bad things happen, but hopefully this list helps. If you or your family have other suggestions for cutting the stress and fear when big events happen, please share them in the comments below!