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Parenting in an Age of Anxiety

Hurricanes. Wild fires. Mass shootings. The ticking of the doomsday clock… There’s a lot to be anxious about these days, and it’s not just adults who are finding it difficult to cope with the constant barrage of really bad news; kids are also having a hard time. So what can parents do to manage their own anxiety and help their kids deal with the scary news headline of the day? Here are a few tips on living through anxious times as a family.

Recognize that kids are paying attention to the bad news story of the day and they need help managing their anxiety

In addition to the usual kid-related worries (worries which can range from: ‘Will I get invited to so-and-so’s birthday party?’ to ‘Will something terrible happen to someone I love?’), kids today are carrying around some very grown-up-sized worries, too. They’re worried about everything from the state of the world to the future of our planet.

Climate change worries are big on their lists - worries that can have a far-reaching impact on their health and well-being. A study published by the American Psychological Association earlier this year pointed out that worry about the potential impacts of climate change can lead to stress-related problems, and children are particularly vulnerable to this kind of anxiety.

This study certainly rings true for me. I remember grappling with similar worries back when I was a kid. When I was a pre-teen in the mid-1970s, the doom-and-gloom climate news was all about ‘the coming ice age.’ I remember lying in bed at night worrying about what would happen to my family if the planet were to be buried under a layer of ice? How would we stay warm? What would we eat? Where would we live?

And as if that weren’t enough for my anxious brain to contend with, there were all kinds of other uber-alarming stories in the news: stories about killer bees and serial killers and saccharine-causing cancer in rats! Let’s just say I was a seriously freaked out kid - so freaked out, in fact, that my level of worry had a lasting impact on my sixth grade teacher. (When I reconnected with her a few years back, she told me that she still remembered, decades later, just how worried I’d been back when I was a kid.) 

Calm yourself; calm your kid

One of the most powerful ways to calm a child is to be a calming presence in that child’s life. But you can’t do that if you’re a stress ball yourself. You have to calm yourself first, and then calm your kid!

Wondering what this means in practical terms? It means figuring out what works best to bring your anxiety levels down when the news is just plain stressing you out. For some people, that might mean going for a run or for a walk. For others, it might mean talking with a friend. And for others still, it might mean completely immersing themselves in a hobby that requires a lot of focus and attention - an activity that provides a complete mental vacation from the news! 

Take a media vacation or commit to consuming a more balanced media diet

There’s a difference between being informed and being immersed when it comes to staying on top of current events. Don’t be afraid to hit the pause button on your news feed - and to help your kids to do the same - if you find yourself feeling really anxious and perhaps a little hopeless or cynical, too.

If you find it too difficult to unplug from the news (because being out of the loop makes you feel even more anxious and possibly a little guilty: isn’t it your duty as a caring citizen to stay informed?), at least make an effort to consume a more balanced media diet. Instead of fixating on the latest bad news, deliberately seek out stories of people doing kind and heroic things or communities responding with strength and resilience in the wake of a disaster. Then make a point of sharing these good news stories with your kids, as well. Kids need to know that disasters can bring out the best (not just the worst) in people and that communities can and do pull together in times of struggle. That way, if your kids find themselves facing a scary and overwhelming situation in their own lives, they’ll remember to follow the timeless advice from Mr. Rogers: Look for the helpers and turn to other people for support. 

Help your child to put scary news headlines in context, and then offer to carry the worry for your child

It’s also important to be willing to talk things through with your kids: to answer their questions in an age-appropriate way and to help them put the scary news headlines in context. A six-year-old who sees news footage of a neighborhood going down in flames doesn’t have any way of knowing whether or not that fire is happening down the street or around the world.

Help your child to feel safe by reassuring them that the fire isn’t happening right here, right now, and:

  • the odds of this kind of disaster happening to your family are still relatively small (even though the video footage can make it feel really frightening and immediate);
  • you promise to do everything in your power to keep them safe, both now and in the future;
  • they can park this particular worry for now. (You promise to let them know if the situation changes and there’s cause for concern but in the meantime, you’ll carry the worry for them.) 

Teach your kids that they dont have to wait until theyre all grown up in order to start to make a difference in the world. They may be small, but their impact can be mighty

It’s important to give kids hope; to help them see that the situation isn’t completely hopeless. And one of the best ways to do this is by switching into action mode: to look for opportunities to try to make things better in your own tiny corner of the world. When you switch into action mode, you’re engaging the logical part of your brain, the part about thinking and planning and doing. This helps to hit the pause button on the anxious part of your brain, the part of your brain that likes to spin in circles and can easily get stuck in a rut of worst case scenario thinking (thinking that leaves you feeling even more anxious and afraid).

You also want to teach your kids that they don’t have to wait until they’re all grown up in order to start to make a difference in the world. Your kids may be small, but their impact can be mighty! This is something I spoke with Lisa Borden about recently. She’s a mother of three, an entrepreneur, and an environmental activist. Here’s what she had to say: “The quote that I work and live by is, ‘If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.’ And I always teach my kids that it doesn’t matter: little can add up. It has to start somewhere. I don’t know how many quotes you can find on a Pinterest board or on Google that talks about ‘Everything starts with one step’ or ‘Little things add up’ or ‘piece by piece’ or ‘step by step.’ We have to teach our kids that.”

Lisa wants her kids to see the impact of their day-to-day experiences on the wider world. As a family, they have conversations about where their food and clothing comes from, and the kind of impact that they can have on the environment and on other people, based on their own purchasing decisions. They’ve participated in marches together so that her kids can see that a whole bunch of people making small changes together can add up to a really big change. And they’ve looked for other hands-on ways to have an impact as a family, like the time her son Ryan donated money from his bar mitzvah to help save the bees and the family ended up harvesting honey together.

My conversation with Lisa reminded me about how much we have to learn from our kids and why we owe it to them to truly listen to their questions and their worries, to welcome their ideas about creating a better world. After all, our children are the custodians of the future. They’re the ones who will be inheriting the extraordinarily messy world that we bequeath to them someday.

Maybe, instead of just talking at them, we should be listening to them and working with them to fix things, starting now. Then we’ll all have a whole lot less to feel anxious about. 

Ann is the author of numerous books about parenting, including Parenting Through the Storm. For more information, visit anndouglas.net

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