Responding to Our Children's Concerns About Terrorism & Our Country at War

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In response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, 
and our country at war with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the St. Alexius Employee Assistance Program has prepared the following suggestions to provide parents with guidelines for talking with their children about these disturbing circumstances. 

The loss of life in times of conflict is devastating and frightening for us all. How can you, as a parent, deal with the fear and anxiety that can affect your children in the wake of these troubling events and the circumstances that may be yet to come? Should we shield them from such horrors or talk openly about them? No matter how old your child is, there is no single or easy answer. In part, how you respond will depend on whether members of your family have been personally involved, what your child has heard or seen, and the age of your child. 

Providing a Sense of Safety and Reassurance 

  • Reassure your children that they are safe and that you will not abandon them. Given what they may see on television and may hear from others, parents should try to assure children that they've done everything they can to keep their children safe. Provide reassurance that you love your children, that the danger to your family is minimal, and that you are there for them. Create an environment in which children feel safe enough to ask questions, express feelings, or just be by themselves. Children will benefit from a sense of normalcy and stability, including familiar activities, places and people that they feel close to. 
  • Assure children that the state and federal government, the military and law enforcement are doing everything they can to prevent future acts of terrorism, and that proper security measures are being put in place to keep Americans safe. Tell your children that organizations like the Red Cross, doctors and clergy are doing everything they can to help victims and their families. 
  • Try to place the war and the risk of terrorism in perspective. Children need to know that what they witness or hear about war and terrorist attacks are rare events. Most people will never fight in war or be attacked by terrorists and the world is generally a safe place. It will be helpful for your child to see that your world, and theirs, are not in chaos. To the extent that it's possible, try to maintain your daily family routines.

Responding to Questions and Concerns 

  • A toddler is unlikely to be able to comprehend what he or she sees on the news. Instead, a child of this age will be reacting to the emotions displayed on TV, in conversations, in the expressions on people's faces. Limit your conversations when young children are nearby. Keep the child's routine as familiar as possible. If your child has questions, answer them to the best of your ability and only provide as much detail as the child needs. If your toddler is unaware of what's going on, don't bring it up. 
  • Children may have difficulty understanding the reasons for war or why a terrorist would want to hurt people. Talk to them about what is happening and how the United States responds to terrorism. Provide accurate information, but make sure it is appropriate to their developmental level. 
  • Young children may ask questions such as "Why did God let this happen?" or "What will happen to the children of the people who were killed?" Fear of the unknown... will the war come to our country, what happened to the soldiers, what happens to their families... can make children even more worried. Explain to your children that we're going to do our best not to let war and terrorism occur in our country.

Dealing with Exposure 

  • TV news has been covering these tragedies heavily and will continue to do so in the weeks to come, and it will be the topic of everyone's conversations. It is unwise to let children or adolescents view footage of traumatic events over and over. Young children may be overwhelmed by constant images of explosions and violence. Limit how much TV coverage your children watch about the war and terrorism. Find other activities to entertain your child by reading, watching videos, and playing outdoors. If your child does see footage of the attacks or other disturbing information while you're watching the news, be sure to discuss what was shown and help your child understand what's going on. If your child is old enough to watch the TV coverage, watch the news together. The news reports may be filled with terrifying images and your presence will provide a sense of security. 
  • All school age students will hear about the war and terrorism on the playground from other children. Be prepared to offer your comfort when they return from school with frightening stories from other children. Don't keep your child home from school, which can be a place of tremendous support for children. But, you may find the need to temporarily lower expectations of school and home performance if your child's attention and emotional energy is focused on the war and threat of terrorism. Help your child find comforting routines as a way to cope. Encourage your child to listen to favorite music, do artwork, play basketball, or participate in other normal activities. This is a time to keep routines simple at home.

Sharing and Responding to Feelings 

  • Talk with your child about your own feelings. But, don't burden your child with your fears and worries. Your child will look to you as a model for coping with these traumatic events. Be aware that children will often take on the anxiety of the adults around them. If you are frightened or angry, tell your child, but also talk about your ability to cope and how you as a family can help each other. 
  • Encourage your children to tell you what they have heard and how they feel about it. Some of it may not be accurate, and some details may be exaggerated. Adults need to help children understand the significance of these events. It should be stressed that bad people do bad things. But not all people in a particular group are bad. Children should know that lashing out at members of a particular religious or ethnic group will only cause more harm. 
  • Remember that this may be the first time your child is experiencing a traumatic event. Try to be patient if your child asks the same questions again and again. Your child may have many feelings... anger, sorrow, fear, confusion, and sometimes guilt if others have died. Assure your child that all of these feelings are normal and expected at a time like this. Let your child talk as often as he or she needs to about war and terrorism and the circumstance that may evolve as a result of our country's response. Talking about these events with you is a way for your child to gain control of feelings that are associated with trauma. It's also okay to tell them that there are some things that nobody can explain. 
  • Spend time with your child. Your presence alone will be comforting and provide an opportunity to talk about what has been happening. Let them know that if they have any questions about being safe it is okay to talk about it and any feelings of fear or sadness. Ask children how they are feeling. Assure them it is normal to feel angry, confused, sad or worried. Accept all of your children's feelings unconditionally. They may not say it, but they may feel very scared and shaken. Each child will be different. Some will want to talk, others will want to be distracted. If your children are having difficulty discussing their feelings, encourage them to draw pictures or write about their feelings. This can help reduce the level of fear and anxiety they might be experiencing.

Looking for the Good 

  • Recognize all of the good that is coming out in people. Encourage your child to become involved as a way to overcome feelings of helplessness. Being active in a campaign to help victims of war or terrorism can bring a sense of hope and control to everyone in the family. 
  • Most of all try to be there for your child. Give extra attention and support. Be affectionate. Give hugs. Make efforts, to spend time together, have meals together, and be together as a family.