Responding to Scary Events

Mom comforts upset teenager.

Violence, war, and loss have become common in our communities. Parents and other caring adults can positively support children as they hear about scary news or experience traumatic events. Below are tips for talking to your children, including how to coach them through big feelings. For children of all ages, a safe and trusted adult is the most important protection. Caring adults allow children to ask questions, process their feelings, and find comfort.

  • Check your response. Children can sense adults’ tension and fear about news or events. Monitor your own conversations about scary news with adults in your household.
  • Limit your children’s exposure to scary news on your families’ devices, including the television. Even when children are playing, they can hear you and are listening. Exposure to scary news can cause fear and confusion, especially in young children.
  • Notice and name your children’s feelings. If you notice they are quiet or angry, they might be stressed from the scary events. Rather than ignore their behavior, try to notice and name their feelings. Assure your children are safe and that you will take care of them. Use LEAPS to guide your children through big feelings.
  • Keep your routine. Routines are everyday activities that families do together. Routines set a “rhythm” in the household and help children feel safe. Help your child eat, sleep, and play on their regular schedule.
  • Talk when your children are ready. When talking with your children, use simple and honest explanations that are appropriate for their age. Young children require less detail about the scary events and more reassurance that they are safe. School age children may ask lots of questions. You can answer their questions while reassuring them that adults are working to keep them safe. Tweens and teens will have ideas about how schools or society could change to be safer. Listen to those ideas. Remind teens that adults are responsible for keeping kids safe but teens can help by telling adults when something seems unsafe. For more tips on how to talk to your children about scary events visit the National Association of School Psychologists.

Using LEAPS to Help Children With Strong Feelings

LEAPS stands for Label, Empathize, And Problem Solve. Adults can use LEAPS to coach children through strong feelings. To learn more about LEAPS and emotion coaching with children, read below and visit the Strong Feelings website for videos and additional information.

1. Label: Notice and Name Feelings 
Children don’t always know the words they need to talk about emotions. Research shows that when kids can name their feelings, they can handle them better. You can help children identify emotions they are feeling, instead of telling them how they should feel. Children feel reassured when they know their feelings are normal and they have the words to talk about them. 
“Sounds like you feel scared and angry.”
“That must have felt awful.”
“The frown on your face makes me wonder if you are feeling mad.”

2. Empathize: Validate Feelings 
Empathizing with your child’s feelings shows that you understand. If children don’t think you understand what they are experiencing, they may try to show you (loudly) just how upset they are. This can sometimes lead to negative behaviors. Children need to know you understand before they can move on to problem-solving.
“I would feel mad if that happened to me.” 
“It’s normal to feel worried when something unexpected happens.” 
“I understand. That was scary.” 
“When I was your age and that happened to me, I remember feeling sad too.”

 3. Problem-Solve: Help Your Child Think of Ideas
If there’s a problem that needs addressing, encourage your child to think of suggestions. This sends the message that your child is capable of solving problems, which builds confidence. When your child comes up with a solution, it is more likely to work for them—and you. If your child can’t think of a good solution, you can suggest an option or two (one at a time) and let them choose. Emotion coaching doesn’t mean all behaviors are acceptable. We still need to guide children toward positive actions.
“Would you like a hug or your stuffy right now?”
“What do you think would help you feel better right now?”
“It’s ok to feel angry, and like things aren’t in your control. Can we come up with a few things that you could do to help you feel calm?”

Additional Resources to Support Parents and Families

The UW-Madison Extension offers a variety of available supports for parents and families.

Young Children
Death and Grief or Responding to Scary Events in the Parenting the Preschooler series support caregivers of 3- to 5-year-olds in processing and talking about death, grief, and scary or violent events.

For elementary aged children our Raising Caring Kids series might help children process how others are feeling. In particular, the Raising Caring Kids fact sheet A Little Caring Goes a Long Way may help elementary-ages kids and their caregivers think about responding with empathy.

A short video about Responding to Scary Events from our Parenting: Behind the Behavior Series offers ideas on protecting kids from feeling overwhelmed by scary events and how to talk about these experiences. (The link will bring you to Facebook where this is currently posted.)

This article is for parents of teens about terrorism and mass violence and what parents can do to process these events with teens.

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