5 Ways to Help Kids Feel Safe in an Unsafe World

5 Ways to Help Kids Feel Safe in an Unsafe World

My oldest daughter was just starting to think about college when a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. Soon after there were shootings in Crandon, Wisconsin, an idyllic little town where my family has spent almost every family vacation since my children were born, and at our own Unitarian church in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2008. And then Tucson, Colorado, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and now the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line, which injured more than 150 people and killed three, including an 8-year-old child.

Like many parents, my husband and I worry about these kind of tragedies all of the time in today’s world. Not just about our children’s actual safety but how they’ll react to all of this scary news. What can we do or say to help them feel safe?

Here’s what the experts suggest.

1. Control the conversation
Research shows that children’s stress levels increase when learning about disasters, terrorism or scary stories on the news, says Sharecare expert psychologist Deborah Serani, author of Living With Depression. To help reduce the anxiety, limit exposure to graphic news images on television, online and in newspapers and magazines, she says. “Be watchful of other communication, like listening to radio broadcasts and even conversations that occur at the bus stop or school.”

Initiate your own conversations, keeping the child’s age in mind, says child and parenting expert Michelle Borba, PhD, author of 22 books including The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. “Kids 5 to 9 may surprise you with questions such as ‘Why do people kill?’ Be honest. You may not know that answer,” she says, “but don’t be turned off by those questions. You want your kids to ask—and keep asking.” Always tailor the facts to your child’s level of understanding and give only those details that he or she really needs to know.

2. Role model calmness
“It's important for adults to not overwhelm children with their own anxieties,” says Serani, “and to keep factual information in the forefront instead of expressing emotionally to whatever is going on.”

In this case (as in many on the parenting front), actions speak louder than words, agrees Michelle Borba: “How you act—especially during times of trauma and uncertainty—does make a difference on how your kids act. If you are feeling a bit jittery after a tragedy, imagine how our kids must feel. Children mirror our behavior,” she says. “If you're concerned ‘This could happen here!’ or ‘No one is safe anymore’ you will cloud your child's view of the world. Watch what you say.”

3. Offer reassurance
Reassurance is the key to helping children understand scary events. Reassure them by letting them know the likelihood of something bad happening to them—or even near them—is very low, says Serani. Tell them, “You are safe, I love you,” says Lynne Kenney, PsyD, a practicing pediatric psychologist and the author of The Family Coach Method.

“If your child asks, ‘Mom is the grocery store still safe?’ answer with ‘Honey this was about one angry man hurting people; our grocery store is safe,’” she says.

4. Stick to a routine
Don’t disrupt your daily routine if something locally or globally is making headlines. “Structure and predictability grounds children—and us adults— as we move through difficult moments,” says Serani.

5. Emphasize the good
It’s so important to assure your children that there's more to the world than threats and fear and hate, says Borba. “Point out the wonderful simple gestures of love and hope that people do for one another during a tragedy,” she says. “Talk about the heroes: the bystanders, the paramedics, the doctors!”

The world will feel like a safer place if your children can focus on the acts of kindness rather than the acts of madness.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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