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Talking to Kids When the World Feels Scary

Strategies for addressing difficult global events with children that build confidence and resilience
Child speaking to parent

The rise in mass shootings in the United States and growing tensions surrounding the Israel-Hamas War are just two of the things happening in the world that children are likely hearing about — regardless how parents may try to shield them. Compounded with other factors like existential uncertainty, the pervasive influence of social media, and a breakdown of civility in society, children today are facing increased anxiety, says Abigail Gewirtz, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University. Many of today’s challenges are unfamiliar with parents who are left trying to figure out the best way to respond. 

“Parents are dealing with things in this generation that parents didn't have to deal with, at least in the last couple of generations. And that's a tricky thing to do, to know what to say, how to say, when to say it, what to listen for,” she says.

Although it may seem like there is nothing they can do, Gewirtz believes parents can take on these difficult conversations. In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, she shares effective communication strategies, including regulating parents' emotions and engaging in problem-solving conversations with children, and strking the balance between shielding children and providing age-appropriate information.

“I just want to acknowledge there's no resolution to these terrible events. But when I talk about resolution I'm thinking about how we can empower our children to feel better,” Gewirtz says. “These things worry us and upset us. And often we can be left feeling like, ‘There's nothing I can do,’ and we can be left feeling hopeless. But I think one of the most important messages that parents can convey to children is there is always something you can do.”


JILL ANDERSON: I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Abigail Gewirtz knows parents are key to helping children cope when something scary happens in the world. It isn't always easy for parents to do though. She has spent decades as a child psychologist, and believes how you talk to your kids about what is going on in the world can build confidence and resilience. Many parents struggle to find that balance between protecting their child from harsh realities and making sense of them. She knows with the incessant flow of information and the impact of social media, there's a good chance that your child will see shocking and scary things happening in the world. 

I spoke to Abigail soon after another mass shooting in America, and also as tensions continue to grow regarding the Israel-Hamas war. Knowing children's rates of anxiety, depression and suicide are up, I asked Abigail why children are more anxious today, and whether it's a reflection of the uncertain times we live in. 

Abigail Gerwitz

ABIGAIL GEWIRTZ: I think so. One of the things about increasing rates of whatever it is, is that it is very hard to attribute cause to them. But I would say that my hypothesis is that it is a number of things. Number one, we are living in a more uncertain world where, for example, there are huge and fundamental questions about climate change, for example, where we know that there are young people who are choosing not to have children because of the state of our climate and the world. 

And so I think on the one hand there is existential uncertainty in a way that maybe we haven't seen since potentially the Cold War. The second issue, I think is the incessant or the universal availability of news, and worse, social media. Already back in 2020 the average age at which a young American child received his or her first cell phone was 10. And my guess would be that is even younger now. And once a child has a cell phone, the world is open to them. And I would say the unfiltered world. All the mess, the ocean of social media, is available to our children, to the extent that we have no idea what they see unless we are extremely careful and extremely diligent. Certainly with older children, teens, teens are way more tech-savvy than their parents. 

And so I think the combination of this sort of existential uncertainty and the relentless news cycle and social media, some people talk about the breakdown of civility and civil society and the polarization, we live in an extremely polarized world, those things are very anxiety-provoking. We have some very emerging research on social media that suggests that the more kids are on social media, the less they're out in the world. Surprise, surprise. Not very comforting. Kids find friends on social media maybe to compensate for not having friends in the world, but of course then you avoid real life and you spend more and more time in the rabbit hole of social media. 

And of course, as a friend of mine would say, the old times, when people would throw a brick through a window, we see that on social media magnified. It doesn't cause the physical damage, but it causes extensive psychic damage. And we've seen horrifying examples of bullying on social media driving children to not just feel suicidal, but to hurt themselves. It's horrifying. 

JILL ANDERSON: Yeah. You talk a little bit about the world is safer in some ways than it was decades ago, and you are not the only person who has said that. I've had other people on the EdCast who have said that, but yet we have all these new stressors of worry affecting our kids, some of them that you've just mentioned. How are these different from some of the more traditional stressors in a kid's life? 

ABIGAIL GEWIRTZ: Well, I think they're more existential, I really do. And I think in terms of civil society, the polarization of our lives, it used to be that we would bring up our children and we would trust in our civil institutions and our leadership to show models of decency. And we can't rely on that anymore. And so I think for parents, that's a tricky thing. 

In America, we face a crisis of gun violence as well. The idea that life is predictable and routine, which is what children really need in the absence of having agency over what they do in a day-to-day world, they need to feel like what people tell them to do is predictable and routine and safe and secure. I think parents in turn face this crisis of not feeling that they can keep their children safe, which is a really a very difficult thing. 

I think there are multiple layers of these feelings of insecurity. And of course, children don't come with a manual. Parents are dealing with things in this generation that parents didn't have to deal with, at least in the last couple of generations. And that's a tricky thing to do, to know what to say, how to say, when to say it, what to listen for, and things like that. 

JILL ANDERSON: Where do you think is a good place to begin as a parent to try to understand how to approach some of these scary things that are happening in the world? 

ABIGAIL GEWIRTZ: I think the first thing to do is to watch and listen to your children. Rather than imposing your own worries and thoughts on your child, you want to really pay attention to them. That's easy to say and hard to do. What I say is, put your own mask on before assisting others. Think about your own sensitivities. If you are going to have a conversation with your child about something that really is upsetting to you, make sure that you have time to regulate your own emotions first. Don't have a conversation with your child when you are upset, because what's going to happen is you're going to end up with reactions rather than responses. You are likely to respond impulsively based on what you are feeling, because feelings are big. Rather than taking a moment to think about how you are feeling to respond to that by taking a walk, taking some deep breaths, having a bath, whatever it is you do to help yourself regulate. And then making a decision about how to address that issue with your child. 

So the first step is for parents to be it, as it were, at peace with their own feelings, and then to pay attention and watch your child and listen to your child. Your child comes in, looking upset, for example, and you want to take a guess at what's upsetting them. But don't, instead ask them. Say, "I can see that your eyes are down turned and you've got tears in your eyes, and I'm just wondering what you're feeling?" And let your child talk. 
Now, some kids are better than others at being able to describe their feeling states, but ways to help them are things like, "How do you feel in your stomach? I can see that you look kind of hot. And I know that when I get upset, sometimes I have butterflies in my stomach or I feel kind of sick." Not telling them that that's what they're feeling, but just helping them to calibrate and describe and then let them say what happened, and then help them identify what they're feeling. "Oh," they might say, as young children often do, "so-and-so pushed me and did something." And you might then help that child to identify their tears and what happened as you're feeling sad or you're feeling really angry or embarrassed or whatever it is. 

And then the important thing to do is to validate what they're feeling. We want to protect our children, especially young children. And so what we might typically say is, "Oh, don't worry. There, there. It's fine, we'll figure it out." That sort of papers it over, it's what we might call a somewhat dismissive response. Or sometimes worse, we have a very difficult time tolerating, say, anger, and we say, "Don't be angry." And that's what we would call like a punishing response. And what we know from research on what we call emotion socialization, because all this is about how children learn about the function of emotions and what to do with them, is that children who experience more dismissing and punitive and invalidating emotions are children who have greater risk for anxiety and depression later. 

What we can do is take a step back and validate our children's emotions. And that could be something like, "Gosh, that kind of thing happens to me when I was young, and I just remember feeling so sad and also angry and also kind of ashamed because I should have been stronger," or whatever it is. Or if you didn't experience that, just to say, "No wonder you felt like that. I think a lot of kids would feel that way if this happened." You're not validating the event, you're validating the feelings. And you're saying that what you are feeling now is an important clue, because emotions are there for a reason. They teach us very important things and they help us survive. So that's what we're trying to teach our children, that emotions are powerful clues to behavior and to what goes on and to ultimately survival. 

JILL ANDERSON: Right. When I think of the past just couple weeks, we've seen in America a mass shooting, we're seeing the rise of the Israel-Hamas war, and who knows what will happen between the time that this actually airs or publishes. 


JILL ANDERSON: How do you know when to shield your child from something scary that's happening versus when to talk to them about it? 

ABIGAIL GEWIRTZ: Yeah. I mean, in the last few weeks, as you said, a mass shooting, incessant coverage of both the Hamas atrocities and the war that followed that. And huge increases in hate crimes in America, particularly hate crimes against Jews. So how to know when to shield your child and when to respond to them, again, be a detective. Kids are fantastic detectives. They know what we are feeling. Take time to watch your child, listen to your child, even for casual comments, because that will help you know what they know. Older children assume they know everything, because they generally do, especially if they have phones. But eight year olds mostly don't have phones and are often, depending on who their friends are and how much their teachers tell them, may not have full awareness of what's going on in the world. Parents may be able to shield them. 

I have a close friend in Israel who, together with her neighbors in a small village, has made the decision to shield their children from what is happening. And they have no news on. The children don't receive any outside information. And they are able, more or less, to have control over what is said there. All the men are away and so they have made executive decisions about what to share with their children. Often that's not possible. And so often it's more of a question of responding and making a decision about how much detail am I going to provide. I think often parents, they want to be real, and in wanting to be real, they share too much. 

JILL ANDERSON: Exactly, I'm guilty of this. 

ABIGAIL GEWIRTZ: Right. So that's where taking a moment to pause, breathe, notice how you're feeling, and make an intentional decision about what to share comes in. Because the challenge of sharing too much, particularly gory details, awful, terrible details, I don't think young children need to know about beheadings. Or terrible, awful, grizzly details, I don't think they need to know. But it's not my decision. Parents are their children's best teachers and parents need to decide. And what I would advise is that parents reflect on their values as they think about what it is they want to share and how they want to share it. 

Now I just want to acknowledge there's no resolution to these terrible events. But when I talk about resolution I'm thinking about how we can empower our children to feel better. These things worry us and upset us. And often we can be left feeling like, "There's nothing I can do," and we can be left feeling hopeless. But I think one of the most important messages that parents can convey to children is there is always something you can do. 

And the way we conduct that, what I call a problem-solving conversation, is by having a goal statement. Now, "I think that the goal of our discussion now is how you can feel better about X, Y, Z. And what we're going to do is we're going to brainstorm ways that you can feel better. I've got some ideas, but you are going to have some ideas too."

Now, typically as parents, we're used to telling our children things, "You'll feel better if A, B, C." But no, this is a collaborative conversation because we want to empower our children to learn that they can solve problems in their world. 

So you'll say, "The rules of this conversation are that all ideas are good ideas. I'm going to write everything down." You might say, "I know that you feel better when you take your squishy to school, and I can see whether we can get special permission from your teacher," and you write it down. And your child might say, "Well, I'll feel better if I don't have to go to school tomorrow." And you won't say, "No, you'll write it down." Then you have a group of conversations and a group of ideas, and then you go through those ideas. 

And of course you've got your own values, and one of those values is your child goes to school. So you might say, "Well, I know you don't want to go to school tomorrow, but what do you think mom's going to say about that?" That's not negotiable so that's out. But there are other things your child might say, "Can you bring me to school?" And you might say, "Well, not every day but on a Friday I could bring you to school." And so what you're doing is you are collaborating to create a solution. You then can write it up as an agreement even if you want, and put it into place and review it. 

Now that I've modeled a problem-solving conversation around children feeling better, but also when children want to do things, that's a great way to help them think about what they can do. And if I've got one more minute, I can give you a beautiful example from the George Floyd murder. My neighbor, we lived in Minneapolis over the period of time in which George Floyd was killed, and it was an awful time. And we lived just about a mile or two from the spot. And we had helicopters hovering over. And we lived in a cul-de-sac with a lot of children. And my next door neighbor had a five-year-old then had fallen off her bicycle and broken her arm. 

So there she was, sitting with her arm in the cast. It was a hot summer's day, and she's watching the kids biking up and down the streets, and she's watching the helicopters and she's asking her parents what happened. And they had a wonderful conversation with her, following which she decided she wanted to do something for the people who were unable to buy food because local supermarkets were shuttered in the area where there were protests, and a lot of the shops were shuttered. 

So there's this little five-year-old with her arm in a cast. And the problem-solving conversation results in a plan, largely through her ideas, that involved her dad taking her, carrying her into the garden, cutting lots of flowers, taking bunches of flowers in a Radio Flyer cart down the street to sell to the neighbors. The money that she raised from selling her flowers was matched by her grandma, and her dad took her to Costco where she bought food with her mom and dad, that they then delivered to the food shelf. 

And that is, to me, one of the most beautiful examples of the results of a conversation, helping children feel that they do have some agency in the world during these awful, awful events. 

JILL ANDERSON: Abigail Gewirtz is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University. She's the author of When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids

I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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