While terrorist acts like the recent attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England are regrettably common, the singularity of this attack has rocked families around the world. How can we assure our kids that the world is a friendly, safe place for them to explore when the headlines prove otherwise? How can parents feel safe letting kids venture forth when even the most innocent event has the potential to take them from us forever?
Kids at the Grande concert were mostly between the ages of 11 and 14, the precise developmental age when they begin to realize that the world actually is full of inequity and danger. It was a particularly vulnerable crowd; their tender-footed spot on the precipice of adulthood, the afterglow of a pop concert, the giddy-safe feeling of a crowd of fans. This attack packs a fear factor that certainly is not lost on its perpetrators: Be afraid, the world is indeed a dangerous place.
It is a totally appropriate and normal response to feeling fear and doubt about raising kids right now. If you find yourself afraid of letting your child out into the world, find yourself clingier, more controlling, body or mind more restless than usual, then there is a good chance you are experiencing some form of anxiety. Use these tips to help soothe yourself so you can be a resource for your child when things seem grim.
Anxiety Exists for a Reason
Remember that anxiety is an appropriate response to danger. Anxiety forces us to pay attention to hazards and proceed with caution. If you are anxious, your body’s innate protective measures are working. All systems go!
However, anxiety can cause unhealthy, inaccurate thoughts that get the better of us and actually make us feel worse. While it’s true, a horrific event occurred, and we need to beware, danger is not lurking around every corner. Take a look at the thoughts that are making you worry and make sure they’re accurate.
Remember that this is one relatively small, terrible event in a good, enormous world. Good news is not sensational enough to get reported with the degree of spectacle most news we see does. It still happens, even in the face of tragedy.
Remember, too, that smartphones make it easy for parents to keep track of teens’ whereabouts.
How to Help Your Child
To help your child with anxiety, take care of your own first. The tricky thing about attempting to soothe an anxious youngster when you’re already worried is that they will sense it, casting doubt on your credibility and making it hard for them to believe there’s anything to be calm about. Convey your certainty that the world is a safe and good place through your body language and tone of voice, as well as through your words and actions.
Common Question: Should I Turn Off the News?
The urge to protect kids from pain by turning off the news is a natural instinct, but even shielding school-aged kids from the news is near impossible in this day and age. Better to provide them with a sense of security by being with them and helping them process their feelings through language and empathy.
Chances are most teens learned the news over social media before parents even did. They still need you, even though they tell you they don’t. Be available to provide context, perspective and background information that can help teens make sense of events like these. While they might seem okay, they still need support from you to process their feelings. They may just want to be close to you; let them.
Talk About It
They will have questions. It’s better that the answers come from you than from another kid on the playground. No parent wants their child to be exposed to violence, and while we can’t prevent it, we can influence how they experience it.
Learning about frightening events feels much more tolerable to kids if they can talk about it. A parent’s willingness to talk about anything that arises for a developing child actually buffers them against anxiety and builds resilience within them.
Focus On What They Need To Know, Skip the Graphic Details
Portland, OR therapist, Ruth Exley, LCSW runs a group private practice focused on resolving child traumatic stress. She says, “The simple act of having a calm, straight-forward, and educational conversation about the attack along with viewing appropriate media (i.e. reading an article together from a reputable source), gives your child mild exposure to trauma stimuli which is actually a healthy thing.”
Include the info your child needs to know to understand the events. Use your filtration powers to share appropriate details, and turn down the volume on the sensational bits. Graphic details and images have the power to traumatize kids, so if they are not necessary, leave them out.
“When you intentionally pair the details of the attack with your calm, reassuring presence and feelings expression; your child may feel upset, but they’ll also feel in control. They’ll be less likely to jump to unhelpful conclusions like ‘Something like this will happen to me’ or ‘The world is unsafe all the time.’ Developing your child’s capacity to regulate their feelings while talking about the event – rather than avoid it – will promote healthy thought patterns which we know are at the root of keeping anxiety at bay,” says Exley.
Be sensitive and available to your child right now so that they can come to you for support. Just your presence and attention can be reassuring in times like this.
Remember that though your child may appear unscathed by this particular event, anxiety is more likely to surface in unrelated everyday behaviors like taking the bus or entering crowds. Don’t hesitate to bring in outside help if your child needs more support than you can provide, or if you notice any of the symptoms of anxiety like clingy and anxious feelings, preoccupation with thoughts and memories, irritability, disobedience beyond the norm, or even headaches, stomach aches, or unusual physical symptoms.
Jenny Kepler, MA, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and writer who has been helping families navigate parenthood for over ten years. Her office is in downtown Portland, OR where she does in person therapy with adults, couples, and families. She also offers parent coaching over the phone for people who can’t see her in Portland. http://jennykepler.com/