Children are scaredy cats! They are anxious in the dark, may shrink from costumed characters at birthday parties, and even in their school and teen years have numerous worries about their academic performance and social standing. How do children conquer their normal or potentially debilitating fears? Sometimes, they outgrow them and sometimes the efforts of caring, reassuring adults are needed to help them move past the fear.
Anxiety was on the rise before the Covid pandemic, but as it continues, fear runs rampant, in both children and adults. In the absence of clear answers about what to expect, anxiety and worry can flourish. A sense of safety and security are among the most important gifts a parent can give, yet when parents are overwhelmed by a dangerous present and uncertain future, they may feel unable to provide reassurance. An adult unable to cope in the face of threat and harm, or parental silence in difficult times, can leave children feeling totally alone and terribly unprotected.
I witnessed this after the horrific events of 9/11. Parents, so devastated by their lost sense of security, froze when their children asked routine questions like “will you be home for dinner?” They felt they could not offer any promises when so many parents’ promises to return to their children were broken by this terrorist act. I sensed that parents needed guidance on how to reassure their children. To suggest the means and language for reassurance, even in difficult times, I wrote a children’s book, which coincidentally, was published in April 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. Mommy, Can You Stop the Rain? tells the story of how parents help a young girl deal with her fears during a storm, but also provides a roadmap for how to offer reassurance.
When the little girl in Mommy, Can You Stop the Rain asks “can you turn off the lightning,” her wise mother answers “No . . . but I can shine my flashlight into the dark corners and make shadow animals climb into the Noah’s ark picture on your wall”.
And when the child asks Daddy to shush the thunder, he similarly responds that he cannot, but he can “turn Zayde’s (grandfather’s) chicken soup pot into a drum, and we can march around the table like a band in a parade”.
In these examples of reassurance, the parents never attempt to minimize or deny the fear. When we deny a child’s fearful feelings, we make two critical errors. If we say “worry about Covid is unnecessary, it happens to old people”, and days later a teen or young teacher has the illness, we become untrustworthy sources of information, not just in this instance but overall. Second, when you tell an anxious person to calm down, or that there is nothing to worry about, that frightened person has to convince you by escalating their worry, in order to make you understand how they feel. the person also feels unheard and misunderstood, which is not how we want our children to feel.
Once we validate or accept the fear, the next element of reassurance is providing information. This is easiest when calming information is available. Parents can tell children that popped balloons make a loud noise but are not dangerous or that each test is only part of the grade. It is essential, however, that the information provided is both true and appropriate for the age. Some fears however, like worries about Covid, or fearing a storm, are more complicated. We can’t guarantee when the pandemic will end, or even when a storm will pass. This does not mean we say nothing. Mr. Roger’s famous instruction to “look for the helpers” is one such piece of reassuring information. It helps children notice all the people and all the efforts that are in place to keep them safe.
Both because calming information will not always be available and because we want to give our children tools to manage not only current stressors, but what life holds for them in the future, reassurance also involves prompting the use of coping strategies. These are tools and techniques a parent can offer, or prompt a child or teen to do, to manage, work through, or minimize their worries and anxieties. In Mommy, Can You Stop the Rain, the coping strategy of distraction is offered, with a puppet show and a marching band. Other coping strategies include relaxation, mindfulness, imagery and other cognitive techniques. Introducing self-calming strategies, such as relaxation in a moment of intense fear, is like teaching someone to drive in Times Square at rush hour! Parents need to build children’s skills in quiet times, so they can be of use in trying times.
As much as parents want to eliminate pain, trauma and stress from their children’s lives, that has never been possible. But there is a piece of information parents can and should offer that is immensely reassuring. At the end of Mommy, Can You Stop the Rain, after the parents have admitted that they “cannot send away the storm”, they provide the most potent reassurance a parent can offer:
“But we can stay close and keep you cozy and warm until the last raindrop falls”.
More than anything, we can reassure our children when we tell them we love them, that as long as we are able, we will be here with them, even in scary and uncertain times.
Rona Milch Novick is a clinical psychologist who currently serves as the Dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University. She is also the co-educational director of Hidden Sparks, an organization that provides professional development and consultation to day schools and Yeshivas. Dr. Novick authors professional articles and book chapters and recently published her first children's book, Mommy, Can You Stop the Rain? (Apples & Honey Press).