When Children Worry

In one of my first years as a nursery school director, our lives were disrupted by the DC sniper. The next year brought 9/11. The year after that came Hurricane Isabelle. Last year our fears centered on the flu pandemic. This month the tragic shootings in Tucson have dominated the news and our collective consciousness.

When bad things happen, worry permeates our thoughts and conversation, and despite our efforts to keep these concerns from our children, they see worry in our body language, overhear bits of information, and often are exposed to scary images and chatter on the radio and television when we think they are occupied elsewhere.

When adults worry, children are usually aware that something is amiss even when those adults go to extraordinary efforts to hide it. Children are hard-wired to study and understand, as best they can, everything that their important grown-ups—parents, teachers, caregivers, and others—are thinking and doing. It is the way they learn how to become adults themselves.

When crises happen, teachers of young children rarely need to ask children directly about what they know. Worried children play out their concerns in dramatic play, in the block corner, and often share their worries at circle time. When anxieties arise at nursery school, teachers play along side children and offer corrective facts and reassurance while they play. At circle time, they give simple but honest facts and reassure their students that the adults are in charge and taking care of things, so that children don’t have to worry.

When children express worries at home, we encourage parents to follow a similar routine: acknowledge that sometimes bad things happen; provide a simple, age-appropriate explanation of the facts; and reassure the child that the grown-ups of the world—be it parents, police officers, or the President—are all working together to solve the problem and keep us safe. And of course, to remind them that God listens to our prayers and cares for us all, especially children.

Our lives, whether pedestrian or global, will always present opportunities for worry, ones from which we’d like to shelter our children, but can’t. What we can do, though, is to strive to model calm, optimism and resilience when thing are toughest. Our children will watch and learn from that, too.