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Published on May 25, 2022

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Helping Kids Cope with Scary Stuff in Life

From disasters to emergency drills in schools or violence in schools, children face fears in addition to all the challenges of childhood.

Parents can help though – and it starts with small steps.

Identifying Emotions

Emotions that create a combination of sadness, confusion and uncertainty such as frustration, worry, anger, or embarrassment, may not be something kids get. But with some practice and exposure, they develop skills quickly.

If children are worried about things in school, such as school shootings, or even natural disasters, it might not seem like a rare occurrence based on the media coverage, said Wallace Jackmon, PhD, LP, a Clinical Psychologist and Avera Psychology Director with Avera Medical Group University Psychiatry Associates in Sioux Falls.

“These events are far beyond scary, they are life-threatening and children may believe there is a chance of it happening in their school,” Jackmon said. “It is important for parents to be open and honest with children and express their desire to help them and the school in any way possible to decrease their concern or fear.”

Getting Help

Developing Coping and Recognition Skills

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 a way children share feelings but it can also be stomach aches or other physical pains. Other issues could be avoiding school, acting out, anxiety, and mood disorders such as depression.

Amanda Enestvedt, MSN, APRN, CPNP, Avera Medical Group Marshall pediatric nurse practitioner, certified as a leader 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. “Children 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.

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.

Outside sources are also something to consider, particularly around large news events. Parents should also consider limiting the time children spend watching broadcasts and news programs.

It’s also important to understand maturity level, temperament and a child’s ability to reason will vary between children.

“Your first-grader will require a different approach than your sixth-grader,” Jackmon said. “Parents need to consider how best to open and maintain lines of communication with their children.”

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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