Magazine article Work & Family Life

Helping Our Children Cope in a Scary World

Magazine article Work & Family Life

Helping Our Children Cope in a Scary World

Article excerpt

As we go to press, it's been just a month since the tragic events of September 11th rocked our country and changed our lives. A military response has been launched and, at this point, we don't know how long it will last and what will happen next.

All of us are trying to wrap our heads around the scary new world we are now living in. As parents, we want to be able to tell our children that everything will be all right very soon, but it's become clear to us already that the stuggle against international terrorism will be long and unpredictable.

Let's look at some of the things we've learned about children's responses to war and other shocking events, and how we can help them cope.

* Provide reassurance. Whether our children are 4 or 14, they need to know that although terrible things happen, life will go on and that we are doing everything we can to keep them safe. "Children need reassurance that the world will continue to function-that there will be a tomorrow, that there will be a world for them," says Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell, head of the International Critical Stress Foundation.

* Find out what children already know and what they've heard before you give them a lot of new information. Be aware that they will not necessarily be ready to talk when you are. They may not ask questions directly-but rather through their play or conversations on seemingly unrelated topics.

* Help children understand that any feelings they have are okay, but they don't have to express them until they are ready. They also need to know, says psychologist Dr. Pat Palmer, "that you don't have to feel sad all the time. It's okay to laugh and smile and feel happy too."

* Take care of yourself. Talk to friends, relatives and colleagues about your own feelings, when you're not with your children. This will help you collect your thoughts, so you don't burden kids with your fears and concerns.

Children's reactions vary

* Be aware that the impact on children of what is happening will depend on their age, their temperament and on whether any of their relatives or family friends are personally involved. Children already under stress or going through a transition are also more vulnerable to any traumatic event.

While all kids have both immediate and delayed reactions to stressful situations, let's look at how these reactions may vary according to a child's age, keeping in mind that there are often overlaps between one age group and another.


* Look for signs of change such as trouble sleeping, nightmares, moodiness, listlessness, excessive dinginess or changes in appetite. Be patient when you recognize that your child is regressing: saying "you're acting like a baby" or getting into battles won't accomplish anything. However, if you go along with some babyish behavior (for example, like dressing a child who always dresses herself), make sure she understands that this is temporary. After a few days, you might say, "Tomorrow you can start putting your clothes on yourself." Regressive behavior takes on a life of its own after too long, and it becomes hard to break a cycle if you don't set some limits and stick to them.

* Answer questions at a level your child can understand without adding unnecessary details. Whatever young children do ask, you should assume that they also have two additional unspoken questions: Am I going to be OK? …

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