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The Informed Parent

Terrorism: Helping Our Children To Cope

by Sandra Smith, Ph.D.
Published on Dec. 17, 2001

Introduction

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.

What is normal?

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:

  1. Difficulty at bedtime. Maintain a regular bedtime routine, but be flexible about nightlights, sharing a room, sleeping with special toys, and even sitting with your child until he has fallen asleep. Don’t worry that these “extra reassurances” will result in habits that are hard to break. Most children, from a very young age, realize that special times call for special circumstances.
  2. Some children may demonstrate regressive behavior for a period of time. That is, they may become more immature or aggressive. These behaviors are a sign of stress. Comfort and talk with your child, about both his changed behaviors and your understanding of the reasons for these changes.
  3. Some children, especially younger ones, may begin to play war, pretending to blow things up or apart. Others will include new images of violence in their storytelling, or in their artwork. Don’t be overly disapproving unless the play becomes genuinely aggressive. Do attempt to redirect your child gently toward less violent play or artwork. Do talk with your child about their play, their art, and how they feel. Talk about consequences, e.g., “What happens in the real world if a bomb strikes a building?” In addition, it is often helpful (especially for children who engage in play extensively ) to encourage your child to take the role of a firefighter, a doctor, or someone who helps to save lives.
  4. Increased somatic complaints: some children will describe an increase in the frequency and/or intensity of stomachaches, headaches, and other minor ailments. Again, do not overreact. Instead, attempt to talk to your child about what might be bothering him. Be overly nurturing, but again, attempt to stick to your child’s regular schedule and activities to whatever degree possible.
  5. Fearfulness: fear is often the predominant feature for children in the aftermath of a violent event. They pick up bits of information (often erroneous) and stories at school which “fuel the fires”. Children fantasize about violence in it’s aftermath. Their fantasies may include a bomb being dropped on their home, their place of worship, or their school’s playground. While their worries may well seem exaggerated, informed adults must remember that they are based on real images of the terrorist attacks! Again, the importance of an ongoing dialogue with an informed parent becomes crucial in terms of separating real from imagined threats, and hence allowing your child to feel as safe as possible.
  6. Confusion: Children, especially younger ones, feel confused about why an attack or threat of attack has occurred, about the potential for further danger, and about when the violence will stop. In addition, they often have significant difficulty understanding the difference between real events, and violence as entertainment. Younger children, in particular, may have difficulty differentiating between cartoon heroes and villains from soldiers and real-life terrorists. It is the absolute responsibility of informed parents to help them to separate the realities of terrorism and war from media fantasy.
  7. Anger: anger is a common reaction, and it is related to the child’s sense of loss of control and stability. Children often misdirect their anger, however, being unable to target the real villains--the terrorist or country with which we are at war. Instead, they may strike out at friends, relatives and particularly parents. Help your child to differentiate his anger, and demonstrate empathy. The sense that one has “lost control” can be overwhelming. Don’t personalize your child’s anger--it is a symptom of his underlying distress.

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.

When Should I Be Worried?

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.

  1. Your child describes intrusive and distressing recollections of the events of an act of terrorism or violence. These may include thoughts, perceptions or images. In very young children, watch for repetitive play actions which may express themes or aspects of the trauma.
  2. Your child describes recurrent and distressing dreams or nightmares of the event. In very young children, frightening dreams may occur without any conscious recollection of their content.
  3. Pervasive, intense avoidance on your child’s part is apparent--this may include efforts to avoid the thoughts, feelings and conversations which are associated with the event.
  4. Your child demonstrates a very significant decline in his previous interests, or participation in previously enjoyed activities.
  5. Your child describes a sense of helplessness and hopelessness which extends beyond the current crisis, i.e., he repeatedly questions why life is worth living.
  6. Your child, who did not experience a personal loss and does not have a parent in the public safety sector, expresses inconsolable grief and weeps often.

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.

So, the child's age does make a difference?

Absolutely!

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.

Teens:
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.

You keep talking about the importance of limiting media coverage—can you be more specific?

Yes!

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!

As an Informed Parent, what else can I do?

For most children, the following interventions by informed parents and other involved adults will be sufficient:

  1. Acknowledge your child’s feelings, no matter what.
    If you absolutely cannot think of a word to say, just give your child an inimitable “bear hug” and say, “I know this is really hard for you”.
  2. Do not deny the seriousness of the situation.
    It is okay to express your hope, faith or conviction that, ultimately, everything will be alright. It is not okay to state, simply, “Don’t cry, everything will be okay”. Instead, try “The world seems really chaotic right now. It is scary for all of us. I truly believe, however, that our government, and the governments of most nations, are doing all they can to ensure our safety. Let me share a few changes which our government at home has already made”.
  3. Be honest.
    Share your own fears and anxieties, but reassure your child that responsible adults are taking charge of the situation. Walk the fine line between reassuring your child while providing him with information which is age-appropriate.
  4. Help to avoid stereotyping.
    Let your children know, in no uncertain terms, that you do not condone ostracizing one nation or people because of the actions of one or more extremists. Teaching tolerance may, ultimately, be your child’s best coping mechanism.
  5. Encourage your child to take some “helping” action.
    This might include participation in a fund-raising activity; or mailing letters or cookies to military and public safety personnel. For older kids, it might include donating blood. Children--young, old and in between--can regain at least some sense of control by taking action.
  6. Don’t allow your own (adult) issues to become overwhelming to your child.
    Try to answer your child’s inquiries factually, but don’t let him “hyperfocus” on the crisis. If you find that you and your family are spending too much time in front of the television, with it’s up-to-date information on the crisis, you might want to refocus the entire group. Say, “Okay, let’s watch the news from 7:00 to 7:30 tonight. Then let’s discuss what we heard for 10 minutes. After that, let’s play a family game, or just discuss other issues for the next 30 minutes”.
  7. Coordinate between school and home, when necessary.
    Let your child’s teacher know if your child seems unusually stressed, or if anything unusual is occurring--like a family member being summoned to active duty. In addition, ask that your child’s teacher or teachers alert you if they notice anything unusual in your child’s academic performance or emotional demeanor.

Where can I get more information?

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




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