Sure, I’m writing this in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and unprecedented protests and riots. The news daily reminds us all of death and sickness and fear and storms. The world as we know it has been set ablaze, slammed to a halt, and deeply, passionately divided. These are no doubt historic times we are witnessing, but let’s be honest – any day we could see these things. The news is rarely encouraging, storms rage year-round, famine, poverty, global warming… Frankly, the more time you spend taking in news, the easier it becomes to fall into a pretty rough emotional state. And if we, as adults, struggle with the weight of the world’s state, our children are certain to feel the heaviness, too.
Gifted kids, differently-wired kids, intense kids are fairly intuitive, sensing the stress that surrounds us even on a daily basis. Their brilliant minds have the ability to absorb information and draw inferences, jump to conclusions, and weave together some pretty apocalyptic scenarios. Every single day my youngest anxious child insists on checking the weather radars and forecast before going to bed, so she can know what to expect and prepare for in the night. My oldest son, another anxious child, studies forensic science in his spare time to help him overcome his constant fear of crime. For some reason, my middle child seems to be the one plotting the crimes, but that’s neither here nor there. My children are intense and anxious, often worried about the state of the world and disasters that are out of their control. They’re always like this. So how do they handle it when they’re in the middle of historic and world-changing events all controlling the news cycle for months at a time? Well, they don’t. At least not on their own.
Thanks to social media and having news available to us in real-time, 24 hours a day, we are bombarded with so many words and opinions and scary statistics that we can easily become overwhelmed. As adults we struggle with what is happening all around us, so imagine the intensity and fear our children must be feeling when they catch wind of the world wide woes. Try as you might to shield them from news events, they innately soak up the stress you’re stewing in, hear things from friends (that are usually pretty incorrect), and at the very least see links to current events on YouTube. No matter how much you try to keep the outside world outside of their awareness, they will catch wind of the news in one way or another.
The problem is that when the news looks like it does right now, it’s traumatic.
It’s no secret, nor is it an opinion. What is taking place in our world right now, what images and graphs and chants and injustices fill our newsfeed and tv screens – it’s traumatic. Even if you are sitting healthy in the comfort of your home, what you are seeing and hearing is traumatic. And when faced with trauma, there are three main responses most people experience – fight, flight, or freeze. Whether you pick up a protest sign, attempt to hibernate and avoid media, or find yourself frozen, stuck, or overwhelmed, you must face this trauma… and so must your anxious child.
The first step to helping your anxious child process feelings and thoughts that overwhelm even you is to be available. Just be there. Don’t send your child away, don’t be so caught up in tracking pandemics or winning political arguments that you’re unavailable for your struggling child. Their response to trauma may be different than your own, so you may have to draw out your child who is freezing or offer a safe place for the child who needs to share their fighting feelings. Assess how they’re reacting and make yourself available accordingly.
Ask your child what they’re thinking about, what they’re worried about, if they’re even worried. Ask them how they feel about whatever current crisis they’re aware of. The child of a police officer may fear for their safety, a child of color may be angered by injustice, or an anxious child may just be absolutely terrified of viruses, asteroids, storms, bees, the stock market, or even just the possibility of being called on to speak in front of a crowd. Just seeing a protest without context is enough to scare and confuse an anxious child. As you well know by now, anxious kiddos can find anything to fret over. Ask them how they’re feeling with zero redirecting. While they’re sharing their thoughts and feelings, don’t interrupt them to calm them, to assure them, to minimize their fears. Let them get out every word and notion. Acknowledge their feelings without offering your opinion of them. You need to establish yourself as a safe space, and someone who cuts them off or waves off an irrational fear is someone you never want to share with again. Even if the fears and scenarios your child has concocted are irrational, let them tell you without trying to fix anything. Listen to understand, not to correct.
It’s important to remember that behavior is also communication. Often children, especially intense and gifted children, experience emotions they don’t yet have a name for. I’ve written before that children’s emotional vocabulary is a lot like the box of basic primary crayons, and that’s all they have to describe their emotions that come from far places on the color spectrum. They may not have the self-awareness or vocabulary to express that they are anxious, afraid, confused, nonplussed, angry, unsafe, or overwhelmed. If your intense kiddo is acting out more than usual, fighting bedtime harder, complaining of tiredness after a full night’s rest, experiencing frequent headaches or stomachaches, arguing more with siblings, or generally just making life harder than they usually do, it’s highly likely that they are attempting to find an outlet for the feelings they don’t even realize they have. Listen to your child’s words and view their behavior with the understanding that it’s not personal, they’re just having a hard time.
It is up to you how much information you’ll share with your children regarding the crisis they’re trying to process. You may not want to offer up every single statistic, story, scoop, or scare. There are definitely details that most children don’t need to know, but it’s a good rule that if your child asks specifically, you should answer it truthfully. A gifted mind can take a little information and sense that they’re not getting the whole story. An anxious child can take a pebble of a news headline and create multiple scenarios that result in certain death and destruction. They’re going to keep thinking about it anyway, so save them the agony and torture of filling in the blanks with the worst fears they can imagine. Be honest and truthful.
Two of the scariest concepts to an anxious person – child or adult – are that there may never be an answer, and they may not have control over the outcome. Help your child focus on what she can control. Empower her with the ability to make change where she can, and calm her over what she can’t. Teach them that it is okay to not have all the answers, that some problems don’t have good answers, and that sometimes there are no answers. Since gifted kiddos tend to have such a strong sense of justice, this can be infuriating, frustrating. Help them through these emotions, too. Agree and acknowledge how unfair things are, how unjust some outcomes are, how hard it is to not know how or be able to fix what’s going on.
A common tool used when helping someone through an anxious thought pattern is to ask them what the possible outcomes are, what the worst-case scenario is. Talk through the steps of the worst possible scenario and ask questions that will bring logic into the anxiety-fueled ideas. “If this happens, what will happen to you? If that does happen, would come next? Let’s see what the statistics are for that happening. Let’s see how far away the hospital is.” This is the place for you to guide them. Not to dismiss them or make promises that what they’re afraid of will never happen, but to invite logic into the conversation. Let them answer the questions and discover information so that they can form their own comforting conclusions. Not only is it cathartic for them to speak their fears out loud, but by them taking ownership of the answers or solutions they can trust and know that they weren’t dismissed. They now know the logical answers to what fears may pop up in the night.
The logical answers won’t always be happy ones. Yes, lots of worst-case scenarios can end with death, a global financial depression, or more. This is reality. You’re not trying to shield your child from reality, you are helping them to navigate it. Pull at the thread and ask more questions – if the world economy becomes almost irreparably damaged, what can we do? What assets do we have? How are we prepared for such an instance and what can we do to ensure we’re able to handle such a situation? Follow the line of thinking along logical lines, allowing both the release of the feelings and the comfort of having a plan to handle it.
It is incredibly important to make feelings acceptable. Remember that not allowing your anxious child to share their fears will give an opportunity for anxiety to make an imagined situation worse, and for behavior to become troublesome without an appropriate and understandable way of processing complex emotions. Those are a lot of words that basically mean that you need to make your child feel as though every emotion is welcome to be shared.
If you are afraid, share it with your child. Not your deepest, darkest fears that have lurked since you watched Unsolved Mysteries late at night as a child. Share your feelings on current events, the fears you have experienced, maybe even the thoughts you have in common with your kiddo. Model emotions for them. Model acceptance for them. Let them see that while you are anxious, you are still functioning. Especially when experiencing feelings they don’t fully understand, children can feel different, other than. Gifted and differently-wired children are often very aware of how different they are from other children their age, so don’t let them become insecure around you, either. Be honest and open, walking down the same logic path you directed your kiddo through.
The absolute worst thing you can do when your child is overwhelmed is to attempt to shield them from all news entirely. No, they don’t need every story, every statistic. But they do need some information. As previously mentioned, kids pick up on stress and see news banners on YouTube. Being quarantined at home for months on end is a pretty dead giveaway that things aren’t normal right now, too. Do not pretend that everything is normal when it isn’t. Ignoring an event will only leave a child alone to come up with a story of their own, a scary one, to explain what is going on. Carefully share information and encourage your child to research what might calm their fears (like my kiddo with the weather radar). Allow them controlled access to information they’re obsessing over. Talk about it often, too, rather than having one big conversation. Normalize the conversation and sharing of feelings so that the child grows comfortable with what he doesn’t understand, grow accustomed to sharing hard things, and has an opportunity to logically work through the worst-case scenarios they keep coming up with.
In a time that is nothing like normal, kids crave normalcy, predictability, routine. Something they know will always be nailed down, available, unchanging in a swiftly-shifting world. Keep as many normal routines as you can, cook favorite meals, keep up with family game night, ride bikes. Don’t live as though you’re waiting for an ax to fall, don’t grind to a halt. Allow your child (and yourself) to hold tightly to anchors in your routines so that there is always something constant, a true north to look towards when they feel lost in big thoughts and big feelings.
So many of us are experiencing and learning about things we never encountered before. There’s not really a how-to guide for surviving global crises, so it’s hard enough for us, the adults, to feel that we’re planted firmly and strong enough for the heaviness of it all. But our kids are even more shaken, even more afraid. Be your child’s safe place and help them work through their feelings. No matter how much you try to shield them, kiddos will pick up on the tension and grief and weariness in the world. Help them work through their fears and you may just find your own anxiety eased in the process.