Dear Ms. Shrink,
I didn't realize how much the violence in the news was effecting my 12 year old. She was having a sleepover with a friend when for the first time she had a panic attack. She started to open up about her fears with the event in Paris and those involved. How can I talk to her about these tragedies when I'm having a hard time grappling with it myself?
— Protective in Marin
The very moment I sat down to write this reply, a news alert blinked on my phone, "Mass Shooting in San Bernadino". I felt my heart sink with discouragement, with fear. My experienced grown-up brain can put this wrenching tragedy into a perspective that is both callous and necessary to me so I don't fall apart. I will function to take care of my own kids, see my clients, and be the grown-up. But if this were a slightly more humane society, I think we might have a ritual for allowing ourselves to feel this terror and panic a bit, before we let ourselves move past it. I think it deadens us that we can’t stop and mourn these terrible things.
This is to say that the panic your daughter is experiencing is real fear that accurately perceives the way life is today. In the face of these nightmares, it is healthy to be scared, sad, and bewildered. That is what makes this so painfully hard—it is not pathological to be afraid. We know from research and experience that healthy kids have fears all through their lives, from a baby's stranger anxiety to a two-year-old's separation anxiety, but kids at age 12 are citizens of the world. They know a lot about what is going on, not just because of "too much media," but because developmentally they are starting to understand life. Which is a good thing. Mostly it’s a developmental achievement and the beginning of empathy and healthy growing up, but panic attacks are terrible things, and no one wants their kid to have to go through that. So let’s talk about talking to kids about terrorism and fears.
What to Say and How to Say It
In general the way to talk to kids about tragic events is like the way we talk to them about sex, we say a little bit in simple language and let them take it in and ask more questions, going slow, taking their cues. We don’t over-share, but we let them know, "you can ask me anything." We stay close with our presence without being intrusive, and we let them know a little of our own feelings if we can, "I was worried too. It's ok to feel worried. I'm here if you want to talk or have a cuddle." In the case of the attacks, it might be useful to tell kids about fears you went through as a child, I talked to my boys about being afraid of Russia during the Cold War as a kid, and they were fascinated and reassured a bit. It’s also important to talk about “the helpers” in Mr. Rogers’ famous pronouncement about tragedy, “always look for the helpers” the people who run towards the scary stuff to help. These are all just things to help her open up and talk about it.
Keep in mind that information is not really that important now, her feelings are. If you can get her to talk, if you can listen without giving advice or jumping in too much, that might be the most therapeutic thing. And this is good for your relationship no matter what is going on. Offering our undistracted presence is an amazing gift—sometimes we as parents don’t perceive how much our kids want our calm attention and a chance to talk to us.
And limits are important too—for the grown ups. I strongly recommend that we turn off the tv and put away the newspaper so that kids are not confronted with violent images of carnage and death. Talking truthfully is important, but those incendiary pictures can really traumatize us unnecessarily. This requires our own self-discipline, but is something we can do for our kids when we feel helpless.
So talking to kids calmly and simply, asking, “what have you heard?” to start the conversation is a good approach. Because of course it’s worse if kids sense that something’s amiss, but no one acknowledges it—but what about a kid who is panicking?
Dealing with Panic Attacks
Panic attacks need a certain kind of attention—kids need concrete support to acquire some tools to help themselves when panic sets in—mindful breathing, focussing techniques, or yoga poses for calm can all be supportive. Find one thing that your child likes and help them master it.
When my 12-year-old son was younger and went through a stage of panic attacks on planes, we listened together to a recording called "Warrior Heart for panic attacks" that taught us how to use visualization and deep breathing to calm our bodies down (and we both still use it to this day sometimes).
Now, my 8-year-old is having some fears about “people breaking into our apartment” and it’s helpful to me to know that these fears are partly developmental; his brother went through something similar and he will be able to work through it with my attention and help. The thing that is important about this knowledge is that it helps me to be calm myself, and to trust that we will get through it ok. Offering my own calm attention and my internalized conviction that he will be ok is the thing that helps him the most when he is trying to manage his fear.
Our Brains Were Made to Panic: But Also to Learn
New research in neuroscience is teaching us so much amazing stuff about the way the brain works. One important thing to know is this: our brains are really good at remembering the negative, the traumatic, the scary. It’s a way we protect ourselves, even if it ends up being too many warning bells going off too often. Developing a healthy way of self-soothing and talking ourselves down out of our worry or panic is a useful skill for everyone to acquire.
Because luckily our brains were also made to learn and grow—and we can learn to talk kindly to ourselves, meditate, or even just shake our bodies a bit to work through our fears. Many people I see are surprised to hear that other many other people are anxious, depressed, or traumatized—they are comparing their insides, their fears, to other people’s outsides. But we are all walking around looking quite a bit more put together than we really are—and it helps to remember that we’ve all got our fears, our addictions, our weaknesses. (I am not being sloppy when I say “all”. I really do think it’s almost everyone.) And we can all work through these and get better too—we can learn to take care of ourselves and each other.
Elizabeth Sullivan is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in downtown San Francisco. She specializes in working with all of the pieces of a family: adults, kids, couples and family groups to help people feel closer, happier, stronger and more alive. She is a frequent writer on psychological topics of interest to everyone, and a contributor to Psych Central blog, Psyched magazine, and Your Teen magazine. She trained at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Pierce Street Integral Counseling Center, and at the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis. She is a mom to two boys and thus has learned to love the Warriors. Visit her online at www.elizabethsullivansfmft.com
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