Between natural disasters, gun violence, terrorism, and other instances of violent crime that pop up in the 24-hour news cycle, many families feel overwhelmed by what is perceived as a new era of trying times. Social media use coupled with real-time updates and images on current events can leave both adults and children feeling helpless.

Children are at risk of experiencing both anticipatory anxiety and separation anxiety in the aftermath of a tragedy, even if they are not directly impacted by the tragedy.

  • Anticipatory anxiety: When kids hear about things like burglaries, shootings, fires, or terrorism, they consider how these things might affect them directly. This can cause anxiety about personal safety, what to do in an emergency, and how to get help. They might become clingy or agitated when they hear sirens, fear to be alone, or ask a lot of questions about safety concerns. In short, the “what ifs” dominate their thinking and negatively affect their daily lives.
  • Separation anxiety: Anxiety has a genetic component and some children struggle with separation long after the toddler and preschool years. Further, scary or unsettling world events can increase the fear of separation from parents and caregivers. Children might refuse to attend school or daycare or become tearful, frustrated, and clingy when they are required to separate. In this case, fears about personal safety and fears about the safety of their caregivers trigger anxious thoughts and behavior in children.

The Trickle-Down Effect

Children have a strong need for safety and connection, and they look to their parents and caregivers to meet those needs. When parents feel uncertain about safety and remain glued to the news cycle for updates on scary events, children internalize the stress in the room.

Children rely on parents and teachers to help them work through difficult emotions. They watch their trusted adults for cues on how to respond and what to think. If they sense increased anxiety in the home, they will take on some of that anxiety and anticipate scary events occurring close to home.

Media Coverage

It’s natural to attempt to conceal viewing of news coverage by using a phone or tablet to catch up on the events of the day, but kids tend to read the tension in the room. Many are also excellent listeners. In an effort to curb their worries, kids will try to put the pieces together on their own. They might even look over your shoulder or listen through a closed door to gather information.

Peer Chatter

While many parents attempt to provide only age-appropriate facts, there’s no telling what other kids have been told or pieced together on their own. When kids feel stressed or anxious, they tend to blurt things out or repeat what they know in an effort to see what their peers know. This can cause sharing of misinformation and increased fears.

Lockdown and Natural Disaster Drills

Practicing for natural disasters and active shooters is the new normal for many schools, and for good reason. Teachers are the first line of defense when in the face of a disaster on school property. Practicing helps kids know exactly what to do in an emergency. It also helps them remember to stay calm and follow the steps. For some kids, however, these drills can increase their worries about personal safety. While practicing shows them what to do, it also causes them to think about what can happen when they’re away from home.

How to Address Fears About World Events

It’s natural for kids to worry about scary world events when they hear about them. Safety is very important to children. Parents can talk about these events and help prepare kids without increasing fears. Try these steps:

  • Remain calm: Model calm responses and logical thinking for your child.
  • Give honest but short descriptions. Avoid graphic photos and save the news for when your kids are fast asleep or out of the house.
  • Tune in: Listen to your child to figure out the exact cause of the fear and help him or her work through it.
  • Build a coping kit: Kids need to know how to calm themselves down when they feel anxious or scared. Deep breathing exercises, relaxing coloring pages, Play-Doh, cuddle toys, and worry boxes are all great tools for young children.
  • Connect: More often than not, children crave connection when they’re feeling scared. Increase 1:1 time and engage in relaxing activities together.
  • Encourage them to share feelings and ask questions.
  • Share good news: Bad things tend to dominate the news cycle, but the good news is out there. Share the good news of the day each night to help your child internalize positive news.
  • Stick to your routines: Predictability increases a feeling of safety.

When children view the world as a scary place, they live in a state of heightened fear and anxiety. Although scary things can happen, it’s important for adults to help kids manage their fears and recognize that the world is also a wonderful place.

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Last Updated: Dec 1, 2017