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Helping Children Feel Safe in Unsafe Times

— NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Upsetting or violent community or national events put everyone on edge. The extensive news coverage can add to the heightened fear. Children are particularly at risk for feeling scared. The following are suggestions for helping children at such times.

  • Determine your child's risk for problems. Children who are directly impacted by the events (by living in a nearby area, or having a friend or family member who was hurt or killed), children who have had previous traumatic experiences, children with previous mental health or learning problems, or those lacking a strong support network are more susceptible to new or increased problems. Even children who live outside the dangerous area may be at risk from exposure to media information.
  • Expect variations in mood or a change in behavior, which may be manifested differently at different ages. Young children may become more clingy, may return to earlier behaviors such as bed wetting, and have difficulty expressing their fears in words. School-age children understand that bad things can happen and may worry about the safety of their family, or have difficulty sleeping. Teenagers may be angry and may be embarrassed about having depressed or worried feelings. Physical complaints—headaches and stomachaches—may also be a sign of problems.
  • Be alert to children who may be reluctant to leave home, attend school, or worry about the safety of caregivers.
  • Provide reassurance. Discuss safety precautions taken by authorities, such as no outside recess, and compare these to other safety precautions such as seat belts and smoke detectors. Review appropriate personal safety measures such as knowing parents work phone numbers and keeping doors locked. Emphasize that the chances of harm are remote and you're doing everything to keep the family safe.
  • Maintain routine. Familiarity brings comfort and helps children feel in safe and in control. Discuss any changes that need to be made in a clear and simple way, emphasizing safety issues rather than fear. Continue with everyday eating and sleeping activities,but modify them when appropriate with extras such as a night light or drive to school. If children are not in school, find alternative activities to help maintain normalcy, such as homework or other projects, rather than allowing free time.
  • Monitor your own reactions and be mindful of how issues are discussed when children are near. When surrounded by news or talk of events, worry can be contagious - from child to child, adult to adult, and from parent to child. Calm parents encourage calm in their children.
  • Keep in mind that children's reactions depend on their age, personality and coping style and tailor discussions and precautions to their particular concerns.
  • Be confident about your decisions and be truthful and honest when answering questions. Hiding information causes children to be mistrustful rather than comforted.
  • Monitor television viewing. Restrict news for young children who can be confused by repeated presentations of the same event. Limit viewing by older children and watch with them to discuss their thoughts and feelings. Correct misinformation and help them distinguish between facts and rumors. Know that children will pick up information from outside the home as well.
  • Model appropriate coping behavior. Acknowledge upsetting feelings without minimizing them, but also discuss ways to manage concerns. Provide an environment for ongoing conversations; talking about being afraid doesn't make a person more afraid.
  • Use and teach strategies for dealing with stress and worry, such as music, talking to friends, reading or playing board games, all of which require different kinds or mental energy that will compete with worried thoughts. Engage in exercise and maintain healthy eating and sleeping habits.
  • Consider getting involved in charitable activities related to the incident. Contribute time and energy to community or religious activities that offer support to those in need and increase a sense of well being.
  • Communicate with other adults involved with the child, coordinate any necessary changes, and utilize school and community resources.
  • Consult a mental health professional if problems seem to persist or interfere with the child's ability to enjoy family and friends or participate in school and recreational activities for several weeks.
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About the NYU Child Study Center

The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at http://www.aboutourkids.org/.

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