How A Child Psychiatrist Suggests Dealing With Really Scary News

This article was originally published on October 4, but has been republished in light of the November 5 act of terrorism in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

A deadly mass shooting taking 59 lives; the people of Puerto Rico abandoned and suffering; Hurricane Harvey and the 1,000-year flood; North Korea threatening nuclear war because of the president's volatile tweets.

The negative news cycle goes on and on.

It’s a scary time to be an adult right now, which means that it can get scary for our children, too. As a child psychiatrist for nearly four decades, I’ve seen that when children are also exposed to the never-ending negative news cycle — even if that just means hearing their parents talk about current events — it makes them feel unsafe, which is often manifested by sleepless nights, anxiety, headaches, clinginess, and belly pain. If that sounds like the way you feel as a result of the news, or the very real stressors going on in the world around you, your children can begin to sense and mimic those feelings at a very young age.

With the four steps ahead, I’ll explain how to put their — and your! — minds at ease.

Daniel G. Amen, MD is a child psychiatrist, founder of Amen Clinics across the U.S., and author of Captain Snout and the Super Power Questions: Don’t Let the ANTs Steal Your Happiness.

Ask Two Simple Questions

Negativity in any form breeds what I call ANTs or automatic negative thoughts, which can crowd out logic and make children feel sad, mad, nervous or out of control. (Grownups, too.) Examples could be having “all or nothing” thoughts, like everyone in America has guns; it’s not safe anywhere. Or “mind reader” thoughts, like nobody outside my family cares about the people of Puerto Rico. Research has shown that teaching children and adults to eliminate this kind of thinking can help with depression, anxiety, and anger. In my new book, Captain Snout and the Super Power Questions, three children learn to overcome their negative thoughts using one very simple strategy: asking and answering a couple questions.

You can ask these questions of yourself or your kids — there are only two of them. First, ask if the negative thought is true, 100% true. Does everyone have a gun? No, they don’t. Realizing it’s a false statement can take some air out of it, or lessen the fear-based reaction you or your child has to it. If the negative thought is true, simply ask what you can do to make the situation better.

Limit Exposure

The more kids see frightening news, the more stressed out they can get by it. If your child is old enough to have devices or access news on their own, take control of their tech to be sure you can limit how much they are seeing when they are away from you, your supervision and calming company. If kids are only sensing the news via family discussion that takes place when they’re around, the way little ones do, it’s on you to talk about things in a way that doesn’t feel hopeless.

Don’t keep important topics from them completely, but share it as you think their minds can handle it, which in most cases means in small doses, and sandwiched between more positive or hopeful topics.

Make A Plan

When important societal events happen, such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters, talk about it once or twice, then decide as a family what you can do to help. Even small gestures, such as donating to meaningful organizations, writing letters to survivors or politicians, or even praying, can help improve a child’s empathy and sense of control. They are more likely to think, I can help, which is an empowering, positive thought.

Reframing anything negative into an action can help any of us — kids, parents, or freaked-out adults — feel a bit better about it. It doesn’t mean minimizing a tragedy, but rather maximizing our importance as the ones remembering, honoring, and then doing what we can to help others.

Find A Positive Story

The brain pays attention to negative information before positive information as a way to protect itself from danger. This may help keep us safer, but in a time when there's so much information around, it can also make us a lot more anxious.

Remind your children that a lot of good things happen in the world every day, but the news tends to report bad things — because that’s what news is for, alerting people so we can be safe. Happy stories tend to happen more quietly. You can even give examples from their life, like friendly things neighbors or relatives have done recently, and laugh about how funny it would be to see their preschool teacher on the news for handing out stickers, or whatever the example may be.

Indeed, it's a scary time right now. But our children look to us to decide how to interpret everything they see. Imagine if, most of the time, we could help them see it as hopeful and full of opportunities to act.