What to Say to Help Kids Feel Calm When the World Feels Fragile

When their days come with spikes, our children will turn to us. We won’t always be able to fix the breakages, but we don’t need to. We don’t need to do very much at all. As the important adult in their world, you have a profound capacity to soften the sharp edges and bring their world back to safe enough. Whatever is happening around them, whether it is a natural disaster, a global crisis, or world or family trauma, your words and your presence can heal and strengthen them like nothing else.

Sometimes it’s hard to know the right things to say, but even if the words don’t land as you expected, you can always put things right again. What’s important is creating space for the conversations to happen. Silence can be scary our children if they are filling in the gaps themselves, or if they are believe everything they see and hear, without having us to help make sense of things for them. There is no wrong way to have the conversation. Just start, and let the words come. Here are some things that might help.

How to help kids feel calm.

1. Ask them what they know, and make space for more.

Children will hear all sorts of things, that sound like the truth but which are actually blockbuster versions of something that is nothing like the truth. Even if they have heard the facts, those facts might be frightening if they aren’t in context, or if they aren’t softened and contained by our calm and our wisdom. Once you’ve found out what they know, explore how they’ve made sense of it. 

‘There’s a lot of talk about what’s happening. What have you heard? What do you think it means? Is there anything you’d like to ask me? You can ask me anything at all.

Some kids might not want to talk, and that’s okay. Just let them know that you are there if they need to.

2.  Anxiety will focus them on the similarities. Steer them towards the differences.

To get a sense of what it all means for them, their minds will tend to focus them on the similarities between themselves and people who have been affected. We can help them feel safe by steering them to the differences. It might be that people who have been affected live in a different place, have a less responsive health system, or are more vulnerable because of age or health factors. The big difference is that with every day that goes by, we learn more about what’s happening, and how to keep people safe, so our response becomes stronger and wiser.

‘We have information today that we didn’t have yesterday, and every day we are learning more about how to stay safe and get through this. We are going to be okay.’

2.  If you can’t normalise the event, normalise how they feel about it.

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

4.  Be their brave.

However scary the world feels, the safety of you will always feel bigger. When our own hearts are calm enough and brave enough, our children will catch this. If you are uncertain or anxious yourself, try to tap into that part of you that knows they are safe enough. Before reassuring them though, it’s important to acknowledge whatever they are feeling. When we open our hearts to what they are feeling, we can hold those feelings with strength, help them make sense, and hand them back in a way that feels more manageable.

‘I know this feels scary love, and I know we will be okay. I know that with everything in me.’ 

3.  Feel what you feel, and ‘add in’.

This is not about ‘not feeling’, but about ‘adding in’ – adding in courage, strength, confidence, gratitude. To anxiety, add courage. To uncertainty, add confidence that everything will be okay. To sadness about what’s wrong, add gratitude for what’s right. It’s okay for them to see you feeling anxious, uncertain or frustrated, as long as this is done from a position of strength. In fact, it can be healing for them because it opens the way for their own big feelings to breathe.

‘Sometimes I feel anxious about what’s happening, especially when things are changing so often. I also know that we are going to be okay. I know that for certain. We are going to get through this together and we are going to be okay.’

4.  Sit with them where they are, without needing it to be different for a while.

Whatever they are feeling, if you can sit with them in it for long enough for them to feel you right there, in it with them, they will be more likely to follow you into calm. The message we are sending by doing this is, ‘I can see the world the way you see it, and feel it the way you feel it, and even with that, I know we will be okay.’ Our reassurance becomes more believable when we start from where they are. 

5. Let them know they are held by many.

Let them feel the strength and safety of being part of something bigger – our common humanity. With this, they can feel held by collected wisdom and the will of all the world’s people to protect each other and make things better for everyone. 

‘There are experts who are really good at protecting us from things like this. They are working around the clock to make sure we are safe, and I trust them.’

6.  Put their anxious energy to work.

Anxiety will focus them on what they can’t do, which will fuel a sense of helplessness. Counter this by focusing them on what they can do. With COVID-19, this might be washing their hands, covering their coughs, and sleeping and eating well to keep their bodies strong. But there is something they are doing that is important. They are helping to keep people safe. 

‘By being careful with where we go and what we do, we are doing something really important. We are making sure that we keep older people, or more vulnerable people healthy and strong. That’s how we all come together to make things better and you are a big part of that.’

7.  Remind them, ‘We’ve been through tough things before, and we always get through.’

You might not have been through anything like what you are going through now, but whether it’s a natural disaster or a global trauma, the world has been through tough things before, and we’ve got through. We will get through this one too.

8.  You see, it’s like seatbelts …

During a crisis, the protective measures that are put in place can feel scary. The more extreme the protections, the more they might feel as though they are evidence that trouble is coming. Explain these as the things we do ‘just in case’, not confirmation that we are in trouble. 

‘You see, it’s like seatbelts. We don’t wear seatbelts because we expect something terrible to happen, but to keep us safe if something should happen. We’re really lucky to have things that help keep us safe.’

Don’t forget about you.

1.  You don’t need to look for the answer to their anxiety. You are the answer.

You might look for the rights things to do or the rights things to say to make things better for them, but the truth of it all is the answer has always been you. The world will always feel calmer and gentler in the space that exists because of you – because of your presence, your calm, your courage, your words, your wisdom. Everything you need to help them feel safe enough and brave enough is in you. 

2.  When out there feels ‘big’, come home to what you know to be certain.

When times feel uncertain or your own anxiety feels big, come home to the things that make sense. Come home to each other, to stillness, to play, to rest, and conversation. Come home to listening more openly and caring more deeply, to nature, and warm baths, and being more deliberate, to fighting for what we can control, and the soft surrender to what we can’t. Come home to stories, and music, and to the safety of your tribe. Come home to that part of you that is timeless, and strong, and still, and wise, and which knows that, like everything that has ever felt bigger than you for a while, you will get through this.

And finally …

This is a time for radical tenderness – for each other and for ourselves. You were built for this. Your best will be good enough, and on the days that you are far from your best, that will be good enough too. When we are faced with unfamiliar times, the things we ‘should’ be doing have to fall behind what we ‘need’ to be doing. And what we need to do is this. We need to hold them close, and leave space for playing, and talking, and listening and sleeping. We need to read with them, feel with them and laugh with them. And that will be enough, even on the messiest of days, or the ones that greet you when you are cranky, or exhausted, or ‘over it’.  Because you’re human – one of the good ones – and this is what being human looks like sometimes. It looks like messy houses, and breakfast food at dinner time, and too much screen time, and yelling or crying over things that won’t matter at all tomorrow. 

These times are unfamiliar and all we can do is whatever we can to get through. But if through this you love them big – they’ll get through this with their hearts, minds and spirits intact. And this won’t be because you did what you ‘should’ have done, or because you were perfect, or followed the rules or the schedules. It will be because you did enough of what they needed, enough of the time, and you did it for them. 

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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