Once again, parents and teachers are faced with the challenge of discussing the threat of terrorism and the prospect of war with their children. Although these are understandably difficult conversations, they are also extremely important. Keep in mind, there is no "right" or "wrong" way to have these discussions. However, here are some suggestions that might be helpful.
1. Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions. At the same time, it's best not to force children to talk about things until they're ready.
2. Give children honest answers and information. Children will usually know, or eventually find out, if you're "making things up". It may affect their ability to trust you or your reassurances in the future.
3. Use words and concepts children can understand. Gear your explanations to the child's age, language, and developmental level.
4. Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a child to ask for reassurance.
5. Acknowledge and validate the child's thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate.
6. Be reassuring, but don't make unrealistic promises. It's fine to let children know that they are safe in their house or in their school. But you can't promise children that there won't be a war or that no one will get hurt.
7. Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they may worry about friends or relatives who live in a city or state directly or indirectly associated with terrorist incidents.
8. Help children find ways to express themselves. Some children may not want to talk about their thoughts, feelings, or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing pictures, playing with toys, or writing stories or poems.
9. Avoid stereotyping groups of people by country or religion. Use the opportunity to explain prejudice and discrimination and to teach tolerance.
10. Children learn from watching their parents and teachers. Children will be very interested in how you respond to world events. They will also notice changes in your routines, such as reducing business travel or modifying vacation plans, and they will learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.
11. Let children know how you're feeling. It's OK for children to know if you are anxious, confused, upset or preoccupied by local or international events. Children will usually pick it up anyway, and if they don't know the cause, they may think it's their fault. They may worry that they've done something wrong.
12. Don't let children watch too much television with violent or upsetting images. Petition local TV stations and newspapers to limit the repetition of particularly disturbing or traumatic scenes. Many media outlets have been receptive to such overtures.
13. Help children establish a predictable routine and schedule. Children are reassured by structure and familiarity. School, sports, birthdays, holidays and group activities all take on added importance.
14. Don't confront your child's defenses. If a child is reassured that things are happening "very far away", it's probably best not to argue or disagree. The child may be telling you that this is how they need to think about things right now in order to feel safe.
15. Coordinate information between home and school. Parents should know about activities their child's school has planned. Teachers should know about discussions which take place at home, and about any particular fears, concerns or questions a child may have mentioned.
16. Children who have experienced trauma or losses in the past are particularly vulnerable to prolonged or intense reactions to news of war or heightened fears of possible terrorist attacks. These children may need extra support and attention.
17. Monitor for physical symptoms including headaches and stomachaches. Many children express anxiety through physical aches and pains. An increase in such symptoms without apparent medical cause may be a sign that a child is feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
18. Children who are preoccupied with questions about war, fighting, or terrorism should be evaluated by a trained and qualified mental health professional. Other signs that a child may need additional help include: ongoing sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts, worries, recurring fears about death, leaving parents, or going to school. If these behaviors persist, ask your child's pediatrician, family practitioner or school counselor to help arrange an appropriate referral.
19. Although many parents and teachers follow the news and the daily events with close scrutiny, many children just want to be children. They may not want to think about what's happening half way around the world. They'd rather play ball, climb trees or go sledding.
War and terrorism are not easy for anyone to comprehend or accept. Understandably, many young children feel confused, upset and anxious. As parents, teachers and caring adults, we can best help by listening and responding in an honest, consistent and supportive manner.
Fortunately, most children, even those exposed to trauma, are quite resilient. Like most adults, they will get through these challenging times and go on with their lives. However, by creating an open environment where they feel free to ask questions, we can help them cope and reduce the risk of lasting emotional difficulties.
DAVID FASSLER, M.D. is a child and adolescent psychiatrist practicing in Burlington, Vermont. Dr. Fassler serves as a Trustee at Large of the American Psychiatric Association (www.psych.org). He is also a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has a website (www.aap.org/terrorism) designed to aid pediatricians, parents, community leaders and others in preparing for and meeting children's needs in times of crisis. The website provides policy statements, tips, a feature release and other documents as guidance to families on how to communicate with children in the wake of a terrorist attack or other disaster. Other documents discuss what that caregivers can do, and the role pediatricians play in safeguarding children's well-being during times of crisis. The website also suggests other organizations that have relevant resources, including the federal government, academic centers, and medical and other specialty societies.
In the news
Helping kids ‘do something constructive’: Operation Troop Support
By Holly Gumpher Fawcett
Shortly after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, my husband Paul, an officer in the United States Coast Guard Reserve, was called to serve in Operation Noble Eagle, the homeland defense operation. The night before his departure, a family friend, who teaches fifth grade, stopped by with an envelope of cards from her class, along with a box filled with snacks and other goodies. Her class wanted to do something, she said, and this is what they thought would be appropriate. The kids were right. The cards and snacks were a huge morale booster, not only for my husband, but his entire unit. The cards eventually became part of a bulletin board in the main hallway of their building. Your kids don't have to know a deploying soldier or sailor to support American troops around the world. Thanks to the Internet, every family can send encouragement to our troops with just a couple of clicks:
—Send Online Thanks: If you're looking for a truly easy way to say thanks to our military personnel, log on and sign the ‘thank-you’ note provided by the Department of Defense at www.defendamerica.mil/nmam.html. All it takes is a few seconds to type in your name and click ‘send’.
—Send Online Greetings: With the threat of biological weapons being delivered through the mail system, email has replaced traditional letter writing campaigns. Plus, snail mail letters have to be transported, divided among units and distributed to individuals, while email messages are instantly available to any military personnel with access to the Internet. Even Operation Dear Abby, a letter drive columnist Abigail Van Buren ran each holiday season, has moved online at www.operationdearabby.net. While the recipient won't be able to see your child's careful handwriting or hang her hand-drawn picture on the wall, the message will still get through. If your child isn't comfortable using the keyboard yet, have her tell you what she wants to say and type it into the email for her. Kids have an endearing way of expressing themselves, no matter the medium they use to do it. And don't forget to add your own message as well.
—Send E-books: Believe it or not, sometimes soldiers and sailors have a hard time filling their off-duty hours. Depending on where they are stationed, they may have very limited options and resources when it comes to recreational activities. Reading books is one diversion that is practical in most situations. However, new books can be hard to come by when the closest bookstore is across the ocean. E-books are essentially books that are formatted to be read on a computer or hand-held device, and through the Internet they can be downloaded in all corners of the world. Gregory and Denise Michel, owners of Wolf Dragon Design, received an email from a soldier inquiring about e-books he could read to his children in a videotaped message from his post. That request, along with the couple's fond childhood memories of a bookmobile that brought reading material to their neighborhood, prompted them to create the Military Download Library. Volunteers purchase e-books from the list of publishers on the Michels’ website, www.wolfdragondesign.com, and donate it to the virtual library — much like purchasing a print book and donating it to your community library. There are e-books available to suit most every taste, from romance to science fiction to biography. You might even choose a children's title so more parents in uniform can enjoy reading an e-book to their kids back home.
—Make Online Donations: Donating to charitable organizations dedicated specifically to supporting the men and women of our armed forces has never been easier. The United Service Organizations (USO) is best known for entertaining troops overseas with celebrity-filled stage shows. But they also run newcomer orientation programs at overseas bases, and welcome centers at major airports around the world. As a non-profit organization, the USO relies on the donations of citizens and the sponsorship of corporations to continue to provide their services. Their website, www.USO.org, is designed to accept cash donations as well as donations of automobiles. While you're browsing the USO homepage, locate the airport center nearest you and ask if they need volunteers or donations of books, videos, soft drinks or snacks. These centers provide a home away from home for traveling military members, especially those younger members who may not have traveled much before. USO volunteers help pass the time between flights with refreshments, books, videos and a sympathetic ear.
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the families of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Bonnie Carroll, founder and president, discovered that what helped her through her grief after her husband was killed during a military flight accident was sharing her experience with the wives of the other men killed that day. Their support of one another through the most difficult time of their lives laid the groundwork for TAPS. The organization's free services include grief counseling referral, a peer support network, and assistance navigating the maze of resources available to survivors. Recognizing the special needs of grieving children, TAPS sponsors an annual Youth Gathering especially for them. Donations can be made at the TAPS website, www.TAPS.org.
—Connect With Government: The military's duty is to defend our rights and freedoms; our responsibility is to exercise them. The Internet makes it easier than ever to help your children learn how government works, and to participate in it yourself. A wide variety of government services and information is online at www.firstgov.gov. Here you can find out who your Congressional delegates, are and write them a letter expressing your opinion on an issue, or click on the link to the government pages designed especially for children. You can learn about the legislative process, the White House, past presidents and first ladies, the U. S. Census, and much more.
The fifth-graders who sent well wishes at the outset of Paul's duty also remembered us at Christmas with more cards. They asked their teacher for updates on what he was doing, and when he would return. She thought it helped them to better understand the events that were happening, and that their actions brought a new perspective to the idea of military service. When his tour was completed, Paul visited their class to thank them for being so thoughtful. It's hard to say who got more out of the experience.