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Published on December 03, 2019

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Helping Kids Cope with Scary Stuff in Life

From disasters to emergency drills in schools, kids face fears in addition to all the challenges that go along with being children.

Parents can help though – and it starts with small steps. It also helps to remember no two children face the things life can throw at us in the exact same fashion.

“Kids can report fears on a wide range of things, things they witness, such as fires and tornadoes. Some of their worries relate to school,” said Avera Medical Group Marshall pediatric nurse practitioner Amanda Enestvedt, MSN, APRN, CPNP. “They may have some fears of bullying or of a teacher. When they do not have good coping skills, it can be overwhelming for them.”

Depending on the child’s age, this sense of overpowering emotion may not show itself in the same way it would for adults.

“Anger is one way we see their feelings come out, especially fears of loss, or of mom or dad leaving or getting hurt,” said pediatric nurse practitioner Kim Peterson, DNP, Avera Medical Group Marshall. “Younger kids might have stomach or headaches, or may not eat as well. They develop real physical pains from something that started as an emotional hurt.”

Developing Coping and Recognition Skills

Enestvedt and Peterson both are certified as leaders in a program called Creating Opportunities for Personal Empowerment or COPE. That nationwide cognitive-behavioral program aims to give kids skills and address something that most public schools do not.

“Emotional maturity and realizing how feelings affect us it’s just not something that’s taught,” said Enestvedt. “Kids may know about feelings like happy, sad and mad – but the more nuanced emotions may baffle them.”

Peterson said emotions that create a combination of anger or sadness, such as frustration, worry or embarrassment, may not be something kids “get” but with some practice and exposure, they develop skills quickly.

“When we can talk with kids – either as providers, counselors or parents – we can focus on specifics,” said Peterson. “If school is a worry, or if they fear some sort of threat there, like a school shooting or bombing, we can address it, reassuring them that while those things are scary, they are quite rare.”

Avoiding Catastrophic Thinking

Spend a few minutes with any child, of any age, and you’ll soon see how important modeling – our words and actions – can be.

“Since things like ‘bad days’ are not taught at school, it’s up to mom and dad to spell them out. We can talk about having a bad day, and how it feels and how we’re maybe going to exercise now to feel better,” said Enestvedt. “If they learn about causes, like ‘Mom is overwhelmed because she was alone at work today’ then they can better apply those lessons to their own fears or worries.”

Programs like COPE use evidence-based approaches to help kids use actions, words and thoughts to get a better grip on feelings. The lessons sometimes encourage kids to break things down – and to reach out to mom and dad more often.

“Those regular conversations where we explain how we feel and see how the kids are feeling can make big impacts on kids, but not every child will open up. Moms and dads should model the fact that it’s OK if they don’t want to talk that moment, and come back to it,” said Peterson. “Some kids are more mature. Others need strategies, like taking it in small pieces. Just get through math class, then go from there, or make it to lunch.”

When parents, teachers and health care professionals all add to the ongoing conversation, it can help kids – regardless of their level of worry – to thrive by understanding the way they feel.

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