In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, much has been written about the impact of terrorism (and the threat of terrorism to come) on our children. This article is an attempt to provide informed parents with a concise summary of what we know about how to help and guide our children through difficult times. I think we would all agree that it is the responsibility of all parents (as well as other involved adults) to help our children to feel safe. This becomes particularly pertinent at this juncture in our history, when the world seems to all of us a dangerous place.
All children are impacted by the threat of terrorism. Those who have experienced a personal loss are more vulnerable, as are those whose parents are firefighters, police officers, and other “public safety heroes”. In addition, those who have had excessive media exposure will be more affected. It is critical that parents limit their children’s exposure to the violence which is now made explicit by the media. This includes previewing the material which is allowable for younger children, and limiting the amount of exposure permitted. For older children, previewing is also advisable, but not always practical. Instead, you might attempt to influence the amount of exposure, and to facilitate discussions about what was portrayed in the media with your child.
To otherwise help your child to navigate the terror which is invariably associated with terrorism and it’s threat, remember that the manner in which you guide him can mean the difference between a child who feels chronically and helplessly overwhelmed and a child who develops a healthy repertoire of adaptive coping skills. Parents help, most of all, by that which they MODEL. Calm, controlled behavior encourages a child to openly address their concerns, and then to distinguish between real and imagined fears. It also teaches them lifelong coping skills which are crucial in healthy adulthood.
As noted, all kids are impacted, emotionally and psychologically, by acts of terrorism. Often, they do not express their feelings directly. You might notice, instead, that your child is having some difficulty sleeping, or perhaps concentrating. He may ask the same question, over and over. Encourage your child, when this occurs, to verbalize what he is feeling--and model this important behavior for him. You might say, “I TRULY understand how you feel! What has happened makes me feel angry, frustrated, and very scared. That is why I know it is important to stay informed--to know what is real and what is not. We can talk about that, right now, and as often as you like.” This approach allows the parent to begin to help the child to separate rational from irrational fears--and to manage them through the process of verbalizing them, and then “working them through” with a good adult role model.
In the hours and days following an act of terrorism, most children will experience at least some “symptoms” of the type described above. These are transient changes in behavior or thoughts which subside fairly quickly, AND DO NOT INTERFERE SIGNIFICANTLY with your child’s functioning (e.g., he can go to school, even if it requires some nudging, and he can sleep in his own bed after a few nights, even if it requires some encouragement and extra bedtime nurturance).
In summary then, parents of children experiencing reactions to terrorism which are considered to be within normal limits may respond with a number of transient symptoms, including, but not limited to the following:
Remember, the first line of action is reassurance, and attempts to initiate regular discussions with your child, at least through the crisis period. Use words that are age-appropriate.
Generally speaking, fears and other minor changes in behavior may persist for as long as a few weeks in more sensitive children. In that event, and given the good adult role models described above, there may be no need to seek professional help. But, if atypical behaviors persist beyond a reasonable time period, and/or your child’s functioning is compromised, by all means seek out a helping professional.
Basically, it is time to worry when you see any substantive change in your child’s basic personality. For instance, if your normally active, involved child becomes quiet and withdrawn, and does not want to leave the house long after other children have normalized their behavior patterns, it is time to contact a helping professional. Here are some specific symptoms which might warrant a professional consultation, particularly when the symptoms are interfering with the child’s normal functioning, and have persisted for two weeks. Remember, the list is not exhaustive.
Remember, each child is different. Informed parents are in the best position to describe uncharacteristic changes in their child’s behavior to professionals. When in doubt, start with your pediatrician. She can reassure you that your child’s fears and apprehensions seem normal, or direct you appropriately if they seem out of proportion to the situation.
Younger children (preschoolers):
Children in this age group tend to be most focused on the issue of personal safety. The most common symptoms or indicator of excessive worry in this age group is regression. As described above, your preschooler may not want to sleep alone. He may seem more easily frustrated and/angered.
For this age group, COMFORTING is the operative word. Let your child know, repeatedly, that he is safe, that his family is safe, and that his preschool is safe. Returning to usual routines, as soon as possible, is very helpful in this age group.
Middle age children (grade school children):
This group of children also tends to regress somewhat. Generally, a very worried child in this age group becomes less independent--wants to “stick close” to Mom and Dad for example, and may become more reluctant to leave the house.
Middle age children are more likely to experience obsessive thinking, i.e., they may want to talk about what happened over and over.
For this age group, answer your child’s questions more directly. Avoid excessive information-giving, however, which can serve to create even greater anxiety. As with younger children, this age group also likes a lot of reassurance (although they will explicitly and adamantly deny that this is so). The best formula: a lot of simple reassurance and a reasonable amount of information which you believe he can reasonably comprehend without increasing his anxiety.
Teenagers, as is developmentally appropriate, tend to exhibit more symptoms than their younger counterparts. They are far more likely, by virtue of their developmental stage, to
be angry and sullen anyway. Anger is the characteristic which is most likely to intensify for teens during a crisis. This group is also the most likely to demonstrate “bravado“, e.g., “Let’s just bomb all of the Arab nations--teach ‘em a lesson!” Stated differently, the way many teens manage their anxiety is via aggression.
For this age group, the answer is as many profitable discussions as possible. It is important, particularly, to address the idea of tolerance. Offer to host a weekly “discussion” for teens and their parents in your neighborhood. Although the goal with teens is the same as with other age groups--allowing your child to differentiate real from imagined fears and to develop mechanisms to deal with anxiety--your approach must be more sophisticated. It must include the teen in a discussion-type format for real help to occur. Because this age group is most likely to have more extensive access to media coverage, discussions about what teens learn via that media are particularly important.
For children under age 5, attempt to prevent any viewing of programs in which the attack or other event is discussed.
Children between 5 and 12 years old should not watch any programs related to an attack or other violent event alone. If they express interest (and they probably will), allow approximately 1/2 hour of coverage per day, with your attendance, and a mandatory discussion afterwards.
With teens, it is very difficult to control what is viewed. The primary goal is to make every possible attempt to discuss it with them. Remember, your voice may be the only reasonable one your teen hears!
For most children, the following interventions by informed parents and other involved adults will be sufficient:
Good question! There are so many good web sites. To name a few:
National Association of School Psychologists: www.apa.org
National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: www.ncptsd.org/facts/specific/fs_children.html
American Psychological Association: www.apa.org