Helping Kids Who are Afraid as We Reopen Schools

Helping Kids Who are Afraid as We Reopen Schools

Over the past two years children and teenagers have had to cope with a lot of emotions. The main emotions they have been facing are anxiety, fear and grief. If we look at their lives over the past few years, it is not surprising they have been dealing with these emotions.

In 2019, there was a mass shooting every day and a majority of these shootings occurred at schools (CDC). Students have been dealing with these shootings for 20 years and since 2010, the number of shootings increased every year (CDC). As a result, students were grieving for friends and teachers and were afraid to go to school. In addition, they were having mass shooter drills on a regular basis. These drills increased children’s anxiety about going to school. They were have more shooter drills than fire drills.

Besides dealing with mass shootings, they have had to cope with the Coronavirus Pandemic and having to go to school remotely. Furthermore, they were not able to see their friends as usual. Finally with over 525,000 Americans dying from the Coronavirus, many children and teenagers have been grieving for the death of grandparents, parents and friends. This has also created a lot of anxiety for kids. Many do not want their parents to leave the house because they are afraid that their parents might catch the virus and die.

Now we are changing children’s world again. We are telling them it is safe to go back to school. However, the Coronavirus is not under control and the mass shootings have started again. This will exacerbate the fear, anxiety and grief that children and teenagers are still dealing with due to the last two years. Honestly, can you blame them?

I have had many parents ask me how they can help their children and teenagers through these difficult times. However, many parents are finding it difficult because they are experiencing some of the same feelings and they know they cannot completely protect their children from mass shootings or the Coronavirus. This is correct, but as a parent all you can do is your best. Hopefully if you and your family work together, you can make it through these difficult times.

Dealing with children and teenagers as a psychotherapist for the past 20 years, I have seen many children with these issues. Additionally, I have researched these issues in addition to becoming certified to treat children and first responders for the traumatic events we are facing as a society. Below is the best advice I have found for parents who are dealing with children who are anxious, afraid or grieving.

As a parent, you can’t protect you children from grief, but you can help them express their feelings, comfort them, help them feel safer, and teach them how to deal with fear. By allowing and encouraging them to express their feelings, you can help them build healthy coping skills that will serve them well in the future, and confidence that they can overcome adversity.

• Break the news. When something happens that will get wide coverage, my first and most important suggestion is that you don’t delay telling your children about what’s happened: It’s much better for the child if you’re the one who tells her. You don’t want her to hear from some other child, a television news report, or the headlines on the front page of the New York Post. You want to be able to convey the facts, however painful, and set the emotional tone.

• Take your cues from your child. Invite her to tell you anything she may have heard about the tragedy, and how she feels. Give her ample opportunity to ask questions. You want to be prepared to answer (but not prompt) questions about upsetting details. Your goal is to avoid encouraging frightening fantasies.

• Model calm. It’s okay to let your child know if you’re sad, but if you talk to your child about a traumatic experience in a highly emotional way, then he will likely absorb your emotion and very little else. If, on the other hand, you remain calm, he is likely to grasp what’s important: that tragic events can upset our lives, even deeply, but we can learn from bad experiences and work together to grow stronger.

• Be reassuring. Talking about death is always difficult, but a tragic accident or act of violence is especially tough because of how egocentric children are: they’re likely to focus on whether something like this could happen to them. So it’s important to reassure your child about how unusual this kind of event is, and the safety measures that have been taken to prevent this kind of thing from happening to them. You can also assure him that this kind of tragedy is investigated carefully, to identify causes and help prevent it from happening again. It’s confidence-building for kids to know that we learn from negative experiences.

• Help children express their feelings. In your conversation (and subsequent ones) you can suggest ways your child might remember those she’s lost: draw pictures or tell stories about things you did together. If you’re religious, going to church or synagogue could be valuable.

• Be developmentally appropriate. Don’t volunteer too much information, as this may be overwhelming. Instead, try to answer your child’s questions. Do your best to answer honestly and clearly. It’s okay if you can’t answer everything; being available to your child is what matters. Difficult conversations like this aren’t over in one session; expect to return to the topic as many times as your child needs to come to terms with this experience.

• Hopefully these suggestions will help parents who have children or teenagers who are dealing with fear, anxiety or grieving for a loved one. Remember there are no perfect parents, so just do your best. If your child knows you are coming from a place of love, they will know you are trying to help and you will help them. If however, you feel your child needs more help than you can provide, arrange for them to see a psychotherapist who specializes in children and teenagers and specializes in treating trauma.

Dr. Michael Rubino is a psychotherapist with over 20 years experience treating children and teenagers. Additionally, he is certified to treat children, teenagers and first responders for traumatic events. For more information about Dr. Rubino’s work visit his website at www.RubinoCounseling.com or his Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/drrubino3 or his podcasts on Spotify or Apple.