Sammy refused to go to school after hearing about the death of several students at a neighboring school. Even though he didn’t’ know the details of the event, he was adamant about not going to school. His mother tried everything, including bribing him. But the more she talked the more anxious he got until Sammy had a complete meltdown. Realizing she couldn’t send him to school that way, mom reluctantly agreed to keep him home.
The attendance at Sammy’s school was extremely low that day. Just a few miles away, there was a school shooting involving multiple deaths. The community was still in shock and all neighboring schools were on high alert. While protocol had been discussed at the start of the school year, the reality of the situation was much more difficult. Families were grieving, kids were anxious, parents were fearful, and teachers/school staffers were hypervigilant.
The next few days at school, there was not a lot of educating happening. Most all of the classes began naturally with a discussion about the latest details. In the beginning, this was helpful but as time progressed, this became a distraction and perpetuated even more fear, anxiety and apprehension in the students. While this process reduced the anxiety in the teachers, it did not have the same effect on the kids. Here is how to reduce anxiety in kids after a tragedy.
- Remember: Kids are not adults. Children do not have the same extensive life experience of adults. This might be the first trauma a child is experiencing. As such, their reactions might not be consistent with others. Some kids will laugh inappropriately, others will refuse to take the matter seriously, others might isolate, or they might become extremely anxious. There is no “normal” response for a child. Their response is largely determined by their personality (which is not fully developed), their environment (which might not be stable), and their experiences (which might be few or too many).
- Grieving takes time. The grieving process of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance does not always occur immediately in children. Even when the trauma is personal, some kids stay in denial for years (sadly even decades) until the matter resurfaces. This is normal. It means they do not have the ability to process the event at the moment. Be patient, it will resurface later. The key is to allow this to happen organically and not force the matter prematurely. The child should be allowed to be charge of their own grieving process.
- Answer only what is asked. Parents tend to want to give too much information to their child. Rather it is important to let the child ask questions at their own pace. But when they do ask, give an honest and simple answer. Don’t sugar coat it or refuse to answer the question. Parents should be the ones informing their kids, not the media. The reason a child is asking a question is because they want to know the answer. Saying, “You are too young for that,” might cause the child to seek the information from someone else or even look it up online.
- Anxiety is healthy. There is a stigma in our culture to want to eliminate all anxiety. Anxiety is not a foe, it is a friend. Think of anxiety as the low fuel warning light in your car. If you don’t pay attention, you will run out of gas. Anxiety is the same thing. If you ignore it, fears could blossom and become the foundation for paranoia. The worst part is when a person becomes anxious about being anxious which usually ends in a panic attack. Rather, teach a child that feeling anxious is normal and healthy.
- Model healthy anxiety. Children learn best by seeing, not hearing. Parents who model healthy ways of dealing with anxiety teach their kids well. Naturally, this does not mean that all of these kids will experience anxiety in a healthy way, but they do have a natural resource to recall. This means a parent should be aware of their own anxious moments, be willing to identify it when their child is present, and allow the child to watch them manage it.
- Tools for managing anxiety. Here are several tips for kids:
- Have a child take 4 deep breaths, breathing in for a count of 4, holding for 4 and breathing out for 4.
- Jumping jacks. Sometimes the best medicine is to match an elevated heart rate with increased physical activity.
- Have a child draw a picture, there are no rules here. Just draw whatever they want without any judgement.
- Acting it out. Some kids love to do imaginative play. In this case, the parent pretends to be the child and the kid is the adult.
- Let them scream. Some kids just want to scream when they are feeling anxious; this is a great way of releasing some tension.
- Let them cry. Crying is the great releaser of all hurtful emotions: anger, fear, guilt, sadness and anxiety.
- No questioning. This is not the time to ask a kid, “Why are you feeling anxious?” They don’t know why and that is ok.
- Be sensitive. Some kids are naturally sensitive and can pick up on the emotions of others. These kids need additional comfort, not criticism.
- Talk later. When a child is anxious, this is not the time for a big discussion. Rather, bring up the matter later and come up with some strategies for the future.
Sammy just needed a break for one day. By the middle of the day, he was playing like normal as if nothing happened. The next day he went back to school and never brought up the matter again. By allowing him to do what he needs, within reason, Sammy was able to self-correct which boosted his confidence.