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How to Talk to Kids About Fear
Yuna Park

Whether it’s monsters in the closet or nerves about the coronavirus, fear is an emotion that can manifest itself in different ways, especially for the younger set. But what are the best ways to help little ones manage it? We checked in with Madeline Levine, Ph.D., author of Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World, to find out the best ways to help children navigate—and mitigate—fear.

Before You Do Anything, Check Your Own Anxiety

The first step toward addressing your kids’ fears is to be aware of your own. “Before you start talking, check yourself and make sure your own anxiety is under control,” Levine explains. “Listening carefully is important because you want to respond to their concerns and not go off on your own concerns.” When you feel ready, take a few deep breaths and offer an ear without interjection so they can unload everything they’re feeling as a starting point.

Next, Choose Your Words Carefully

As parents, it’s easy to throw out joking statements and forget how literal kids can be. For example, if you say something like, “Well, if the world doesn’t end…” your child likely has no understanding of sarcasm and irony and might take you at your word. That can exacerbate their nerves.

From there, project an air of reassurance. Levine recommends talking in a calm tone of voice that conveys the fact that, no matter what, the adults in his or her life are in control and will continue to keep their children safe. “An older child can handle a more nuanced presentation of what’s going on, but a younger child will cope best if they know they have security and stability,” she says. “Should that change, there will be another discussion, but for the moment, young children need some information, but not too much.”

Help Them Find a Path to Good, Reliable Information

Kids pick up information like sponges. When discussing something they’re worrying about, now’s the time to remind them that not everything they think or hear is true. “Encourage them to come to you for an explanation about things they’re feeling nervous about,” Levine suggests, then work together to find a reliable source with age-appropriate information. (In the time of COVID-19, it’s also a smart idea to keep the TV off when they’re around.)

Teach Them a Few Coping Mechanisms

One of the toughest parts about fear is that you won’t always be present to help your child manage it in the moment. This is why coping mechanisms are so important, says Levine. “One of my families has a ten-minute nightly deep breathing session before bedtime. It’s a moment of being together and working to bring down all the things that go with anxiety—higher blood pressure, dizziness, difficulty breathing and more.” She suggests asking your child directly what helps them relax. “Maybe it’s exercise or reading or doing a puzzle. It could also be talking to friends. Do those activities together, since your presence adds another layer of comfort, which, like a young child’s blankie, can eventually help them develop a reliable internal sense of comfort.”

If Fear Seems to Be Getting Worse, Not Better, Consult Your Pediatrician

In the face of something like COVID-19, your child’s anxiety, much like yours, will ebb and flow. But, according to Levine, it’s good to remind kids that anxiety does serve a purpose. (Explain that it alerts us to things that might threaten us, and that you have confidence they can tolerate some anxiety and be OK.) That said, if it reaches a point where your child seems unable to manage it—say, they’re extra clingy, exhibiting signs of obsessive-compulsive behaviors or unable to sleep at all, reach out to your pediatrician for advice. “They’ve seen thousands of kids, you’ve seen a few,” Levine says. “Your doctor also knows your child and can suggest additional mental health resources if needed.”

RELATED: How to Talk to Your Kids About COVID-19 (Even If You Have Zero Answers)

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