Helping Your Children When They Are Afraid

“In Virginia, an elementary school teacher says students are ‘crying in the classroom and having meltdowns at home.’ In Oregon, a K-3 teacher says her black students are ‘concerned for their safety because of what they see on TV…’

Some of the stories are heartbreaking. In Tennessee, a kindergarten teacher says a Latino child—told by classmates that he will be deported and trapped behind a wall—asks every day, ‘Is the wall here yet?'”

From a report on the impact of the elections in US schools by the Southern Poverty Law Center

By Dr. Jeffrey Olrick

The current political climate has the potential to stir up high levels of fear and anxiety in children. Fear in itself is not a bad thing—it is a natural emotional response that can help us stay in tune with our environment and keep us aware of real dangers.

But what happens when the dangers we fear are hidden from immediate view, yet constantly visited through media and overheard conversations? Fear stops being useful and instead becomes paralyzing. This is the type of fear many of us, especially our children, have come to experience as part of our daily lives. And this is what makes fear in the modern world so difficult.

Ideally, we practice facing and mastering our fears through experience, which is how fear is most effectively overcome. But when our children are afraid for their safety or the safety of their friends because of national events, we can’t grab them by the hand and walk outside to help them face the fear head on. The danger hangs too far out of reach.

As parents, it can be tempting to minimize and assure our children out of their fear, but our kids need us in concrete ways when they are afraid. So, how can we help our children to face their fear? Let’s explore two key strategies together.

Strategy One: Calm Presence and Breathing

The human brain is wired to feel safety through the strong, calming, physical presence of other human beings, especially the people we are closest to. It is why your little one insists on crawling into bed with you in the middle of the night, and why your otherwise wound up kiddo crawls into your lap when she is sick. We are designed to feel calm when we feel safe touch.

Conscious breathing also has power to flip the switch from fear to calm. Without even realizing it, we breathe differently (quick and shallow) when we sense danger. Helping your child to take slow, deep breaths while you hold him is the quickest way to defuse fear in the moment.

When your child is afraid, speak to her in a calm voice. Hold him or put your arm around her, and speak words that assure your children of your closeness— I’m here with you. Teach her to take deep breaths. Count with him while he breathes in —1,2,3 — and out — 4,5,6.

Calm presence and breathing is the primary strategy to use to address fear in young children. We cannot take all of our children’s fears away, but we can calm them by being willing to be present with them in the midst of their fear.

Strategy Two: Understanding Facts and Visualizing the Future

If your children are elementary school age or older, you can use their emerging thinking skills to help them work through their fear. Being able to understand a real-life situation clearly and practice a specific response can be empowering and comforting for a child.

Exploring your child’s fears begins with naming the facts of the situation as best you and your child can understand them. After you have named the facts of the fear, help your child understand how probable it is for the danger to occur to her. When danger has some reasonable possibility of occurring (even if very minimally), explore how your child could face the situation in specific and concrete terms. If possible, practice strategies to handle the situation. (e.g., role playing, taking a self-defense class, having him practice calling a trusted adult to show him there are people to reach out to).

These three steps — naming the facts, identifying the probability of danger, and exploring how to handle the worst-case scenario — can help bring the fear your child is struggling with down to a manageable size.

When fear is overwhelming and danger seemingly imminent, your strong and calming presence is what your child needs most. When fear lingers and danger seems just over the horizon, it’s your ability to think clearly and specifically about that imagined danger that will help your child more than anything. Through experiencing both of these responses from you, your children will learn that fear can be faced, and that you are a safe person to come to for comfort and support when they are afraid.