How to Make Children Feel Safe
When the World Doesn’t Feel Very Safe
by Anita DiGregory
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers —so many caring people in this world.” ~Fred Rogers
It is amazing how much life can change in a couple of months.
Many of us are dealing with all the uncertainties…the loss of income, health concerns, establishing new “normals,” and new responsibilities. Each day, the daily news is inundated with mind-boggling statistics, conflicting facts, and scary images.
In just a few months, the world has changed…gotten a bit smaller. No matter our background, we are all in this together, fighting this silent, invisible enemy, trying to figure things out, and maneuvering through this new reality. As adults, we are better able to navigate the daily news, overwhelming as it may be; we are more equipped to understand, decipher, and filter, but what about our children?
With the prospect of counties starting to attempt to reopen again, things will change again. Again, their day-to-day routines will be impacted. They may be seeing people in their community wearing masks and gloves. Images on screens or the news can be scary and confusing. Even if they don’t voice it, children may feel anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. So, how do we help them to feel safe in a world that seems out of control? Here are a few tips from some experts, including some past advice from Mr. Rogers himself…because who wouldn’t benefit from some of his calming words right now?
Try to Control Your Own Anxiety. This can be hard. Even though we are adults, we may struggle with feelings of fear and anxiety ourselves. That is okay. It is normal to feel this way in times of uncertainty. So, what can we do to control our anxiety? If you notice that the news or social media is stressing you out, limit your exposure to these outlets. Seek out necessary information from reliable sources, then turn it off. If you are feeling uneasy, talk with another adult, such as a spouse, friend, or pastor about how you are feeling, but make sure to do so where your child cannot overhear you. According to Rogers, “Children sense when their parents are really worried, whether they’re watching the news or talking about it with others. No matter what children know about a “crisis,” it’s especially scary for them to realize that their parents are scared.”
Additional ways to help ease your anxiety are: prayer, exercise, spending time with family, working on a project or a hobby, reading, journaling, keeping a gratitude journal, or meditating. There are many apps available to help with meditation, including Hallow, Soultime, and Calm.
Talk to Your Children. Don’t be afraid to discuss the situation with your children. Odds are they know some facts and probably have some misconceptions as well. Keep your conversation factual but developmentally appropriate. Gene Beresin, MD, executive director, MGH Clay Center for Young and Healthy Minds, recommends asking your children what they know, how they feel, and what questions they have. Allow them to express their thoughts and feelings. “If we don’t let children know it’s okay to feel sad and scared, they may try to hide those feelings or think that something is wrong with them whenever they do feel that way. They certainly don’t need to hear all the details of what’s making us sad or scared, but if we can help them accept their own feelings as natural and normal, their feelings will be much more manageable for them,” states Rogers. Keep lines of communication open. As things change, or if you see signs of anxiety, revisit the conversation, making sure to address any new concerns or misconceptions they may have.
Be Reassuring. According to Rogers, “They need to hear very clearly that their parents are doing all they can to take care of them and to keep them safe. They also need to hear that people in the government and other grownups they don’t even know are working hard to keep them safe, too.” Empower them by telling them they can help as well by doing things like washing their hands properly, eating nutritious foods, and getting exercise and enough sleep. Model these behaviors for them. Rogers also recommends supplying your child with extra comfort and affection, such as hugs and snuggling together to read. “Physical comfort goes a long way towards providing inner security. That closeness can nourish you, too,” he adds.
Watch for Signs of Anxiety. President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Sally Goza, MD, FAAP, says that children may not have the words to express how they are feeling. Signs may include crankiness, clinginess, trouble sleeping, seeming distracted, aggressive behavior, or regressions. Goza recommends sticking to normal routines as much as possible (with, for example, regular mealtimes and bedtimes), protecting them from frightening images, and talking with your pediatrician if you need assistance.
Do Things Together as a Family. There is no disputing that these days can be filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Being together can be helpful to everyone in the family. Regularly eat meals together. Pray together. Work on a project or hobby as a unit. Take a hike. Read together. Have a family movie night. Rogers recommends, “Plan something that you and your child enjoy doing together, like taking a walk, going on a picnic, having some quiet time, or doing something silly. It can help to know there are simple things in life that can help us feel better, both in good times and in bad.”
Remember You Are Not Alone. As we are all told to practice social distancing and encouraged to stay home, we may feel very isolated. It is helpful to remember we are not in this alone. Pray together for your community and the world. Facetime or Zoom friends and family. Have your children make cards or write letters to extended family or neighbors.
Rogers reminds us, “Since we were children once, the roots for our empathy are already planted within us. We’ve known what it was like to feel small and powerless, helpless and confused.”
These days are certainly filled with these emotions. Know you are in my prayers. And remember: This, too, shall pass. Let’s allow this to change us for the better; let’s keep our priorities right; let’s pray, hope, love, practice kindness, patience, and gratitude, and be “helpers.”