When the World Doesn’t Make Sense: How to Help Anxious Children Cope With Tragedy

If you think your child is too young to understand what’s going on when tragedy hits, you may need to think again. If your child is old enough to talk, he or she may be old enough to ask questions. Each child has his or her own personality, maturity level and past history with trauma that will tailor his or her individual reaction, but anxious kids of all ages require support and guidance – as well as answers to their questions.

Children deserve honest answers, regardless of their age,” George Washington University stresses. “You do not have to provide every detail, but don’t hold back too much information either; instill trust in your child while helping him or her understand what happened.”

This article aims to help parents and teachers of anxious children provide those answers as well as offer the support and love kids need in the aftermath of tragedy. We offer a rundown on typical reactions from anxious kids in various age groups and note how children with anxiety issues react differently to traumatic events than other kids. We then offer guidance for parents and teachers on what to do when violence is plastered all over the news – and when it hits closer to home.

The Age-Old Age Question

At what age do you talk and when do you not burden children with the horrors of the world?

While children younger than age 9 may not be able to grasp the full reality of what happened, they are certainly going to sense that it’s something bad, according to the George Washington University (GWU). Your own emotions and reactions are heartily felt by children of all ages who will be acutely aware that something awful is in the air.

“Even children as young as infants and toddlers may become fussy or cry more often in response to the anxiety and stress their parents and caregivers may be experiencing,” according to GWU.

The effects of a traumatic event may also linger for some time.

More than twenty years of studies have confirmed that school-age children and adolescents can experience the full range of posttraumatic stress reactions that are seen in adults,” according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN).

Children of all ages can benefit from talking about their thoughts and feelings, which parents, caregivers and schools should encourage. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends schools prep teachers and parents by offering guidelines on things to say following a tragedy, and to keep an eye out for children who may display signs of needing additional help. Whether it’s at home or at school, a listening ear is one of the best things you can provide for a child after a traumatic event.

Infants and toddlers.This may be the only set where you don’t have to answer any questions, but only if your child is not old enough to talk. The youngest children are at a major disadvantage because they are not yet able to vocalize or even understand their feelings. “They have the most difficulty with their intense physical and emotional reactions,” NCTSN notes. “They become really upset when they hear cries of distress from a parent or caretaker.”

Keeping the youngest children close is a good idea, with frequent hugs and other physical contact. The parent or caretaker serves as the child’s “protective shield” and the main aim is to keep that shield firmly in place. Any form of separation can worsen the anxiety.

Elementary and early middle school.

Early elementary school. Keep explanations simple, brief and compound them with plenty of reassurances that their daily lives will remain unchanged. 

Upper elementary and early middle school. Here come the difficult questions. Kids are likely to ask about their own safety and how their school is keeping them secure. You can also help kids in this age group by making sure they understand the difference between reality and their imagination and keeping them grounded in the former.

Once children start elementary school, they are typically able to understand the severity of a situation and the threat it may present to their own lives. They may begin to feel helpless that they have no power to stop the danger. Their fear can be compounded by their fast flood of emotions and the body’s physical reaction to danger, which they may not yet understand. NCTSN sums it up well with a quote from an 8-year-old boy:

My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to break.”

Upper middle school and high school. Their reactions and their opinions on the situation are likely to be very strong. Kids in this age group are inclined to share their own solutions on how their school and society in general can be made safer. They may also want to do something to help the victims and community following a tragedy, an idea that should be encouraged.

“Adolescents are learning to handle intense physical and emotional reactions in order to take action in the face of danger,” NCTSN says. “They are also learning more about human motivation and intent and struggle over issues of irresponsibility, malevolence, and human accountability.” If you’re up for a philosophical discussion, this would be the age group where you just might get it.

How Anxious Children’s Reactions Differ from the Typical Kid’s

Children who suffer from anxiety issues are typically going to have a more difficult time coping with a traumatic situation, NCTSN says. They may be plagued with the same emotions and exhibit the same behavior as a child without anxiety issues, but those emotions and behaviors could hit on a much grander scale.

Anxious children will respond with more fear than the typical child, which means you’ll have a tougher time reassuring them or calming them down. Once the tragedy has passed, anxious children may have more vehement reactions to reminders of the incident, reacting with greater amounts of fear that the tragedy will happen again. They may also have a tougher time in the future when they try to determine if a given situation is safe.

What to Do When Tragedy is Plastered all Over the Media 

Experts are typically known to differ, yet all agree on one thing when it comes to tragedy plastered on TV, the radio or your computer screens:

Turn the dang thing off!

The National Association of School Psychologists says it best: Limit your child’s television viewing of these events. If they must watch, watch with them for a brief time; then turn the set off. Don’t sit mesmerized re-watching the same events over and over again.”

Disturbing footage and photos of violence, sensationalistic headlines and all other coverage that reinforces the horror only serves to increase the chances that your own child’s anxieties and fears will escalate, GWU says.

Just because you turn off the TV or computer, however, doesn’t mean the impact of the tragedy goes away. Anxiety, stress, terror, helplessness, anger and irritability are just a few of the emotions that may consume you and your child. Guilt can also hit, with you and your children feeling guilty that you were unable to do anything to stop the tragedy or that what you did do only served to make things worse.

The tragedy can also take a physical toll, making it difficult or even impossible for you or your child to concentrate, eat or sleep without nightmares or at all. Children who are filled with anxiety and fear can become unusually clingy or start to regress into a more infantile state.  Schoolwork can suffer. Your child may become easily and frequently filled with aggression and frustration.

“All of these reactions are normal,” GWU stresses, “but if you do not address them, you can jeopardize your health.” Not addressing reactions and concerns can also hurt the health and development of your child. Although the reactions are normal, they should also eventually subside. If the feelings and behaviors continue long after the tragedy occurred, GWU says it may be time to seek outside help – a suggestion that counts for you and your child.

Before you or your kid leap onto the nearest psychiatrist couch, there are some steps you and your child can take to alleviate your anxiety and fear immediately following a traumatic event.

Ways to Help Anxious Kids Cope

Talk. Your kids are going to feel better if they can express their anxiety. Encourage a dialogue by asking questions to help them sort out their feelings and fears. Openness and honestly are a must, so feel free to share some of your own concerns to help your child open up.

Reassure. False promises can backfire, but it’s always OK to reassure. Make sure your kids know you intend to do what you can to keep them safe and secure, as will their schools, the police and other authorities.

Resume routine. Getting back into your normal routine can help immensely, especially for anxious children who are comforted by predictability. Resume a routine gives both parents and anxious kids a sense of comfort and control.

Eat. Sleep. Exercise. Don’t forget to breathe. Eating healthy foods, physical activity and adequate sleep all help with alleviating anxiety. A deep breath in the midst of panic, or any time you or your child feel stressed, can also do wonders. Meditation can be another helpful tool by combining a focus on slow, deep breaths with quiet time.

What to Do When Tragedy Hits Closer to Home

The closer you or your children are to a traumatic situation, the more intense your reactions and emotions are likely to be. Being the victim of or a witness to a violent act results in even further exemplified feelings of anxiety, stress, terror, helplessness, anger and irritability. It can also add a layer of guilt, with you and your children feeling guilty that you were unable to do anything to stop the tragedy or that what you did do only served to make things worse.

Trauma coupled with the child’s loss of a friend, classmate, teacher or other acquaintance adds grief and bereavement to the mix of stresses and emotions, especially if the child witnessed the death.

“The mind of the traumatically bereaved child continues to focus on details of the way the person died,” NCTSN says. “If a witness, the child can keep seeing horrific images of the death that get in the way of remembering and reminiscing. A child may even avoid thinking about the lost loved one or doing things that are reminders of the person.”

Children may have a tougher time being comforted by their families, friends, community and schools, especially when faced with things that remind them of that person or the tragedy that occurred. Behavioral problems can escalate; depression can set in. A number of things can trigger reminders of the incident, such as a person, place or even a feeling that arises.

“Trauma reminders can cause us to feel afraid, upset, or keep us on the lookout for danger,” NCTSN explains. “Our bodies may react and ‘remember,’ even though we are not aware of having been reminded.”

Once a reminder kicks in, the same terror and behaviors that were apparent the first time around can also resurface. Your child may once again have trouble concentrating, eating or sleeping and may become angry, irritable or subject to drastic mood changes.

Seeking professional help after a tragedy is by no  means a sign of weakness, for you or your anxious child. It can instead serve to give you both the strength you need to recover and move forward, to let the tragedy go and go on with your life. Talking about anxiety and fears remains one of the most beneficial actions you and your kid can take, as is letting your child know you’re always there to listen.