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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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