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How to Talk to Your Children
About War and Other Horrific Events…

September 11, 2001 – or 9-1-1 as many were quick to point out – will indeed go down in history as another day in infamy. The difference is that we saw it all unfold in front of us; we watched in horror as that second commercial airliner slammed into the World Trade Center; and we watched the ultimate icon of our military strength go up in flames, sending plumes of smoke throughout our capital city. The images on television were far worse than any conjured up by Hollywood, and Americans of all ages watched them. For people on the scene who saw the carnage first-hand, the sights and sounds will haunt their thoughts and dreams for a lifetime. Young children may not be able to distinguish between their interactive video games where buildings are blown up and “characters” are killed, only to return and play again another day. But as the coverage goes on, they tune into their parents anguish, and the fear creeps insidiously into yet another generation…

As parents, we have to be prepared to discuss the news and tragic current events with our children, however unpleasant this may be. We have the responsibility to get through to our youngsters that while a national emergency affects each and every one of us, measures are in place to protect us, and in every way possible to reassure them that they are out of harm’s way.


Here are some suggestions that may be helpful:

1. It is important for parents to answer all the questions raised by their youngsters, to treat each question with seriousness and respect, and to phrase the answers in an age-appropriate way. A six-year-old child may not understand global conflict, but they most certainly do understand the consequences of someone taking what doesn’t belong to them. They might comprehend the need for the person’s friends to help get their belongings returned to them, and that the wrongdoer would deserve to be punished. Talk openly with your children and encourage them to express their fears and opinions. Reassure them without diminishing the problem.

2. Young children are most concerned about their own safety, and fear is an emotion learned quite early. Children are also sensitive to the emotions and anxiety of their parents; even infants can sense that there is something wrong. This is a time for parents to keep strong emotions in check, and to devote undivided attention to youngsters who may be growing increasingly afraid. They need to be reassured that no matter what happens, they will be cared for. Surprise attacks are especially unsettling, and while it is impossible to predict or prevent them, parents should find some method to put such attacks in perspective. Fortunately, they have not occurred on our shores before now, and this crisis will most surely prompt heightened security in the future. Youngsters might find it comforting to know that more people will be looking out for their safety.

3. Most of us are comforted by a daily routine or schedule, and children are no different. Where ever possible, stick to normal routines and activities. Parents may find little to laugh about, but humor can go a long way toward bringing things back to normal for a young child.

4. Try to limit TV news viewing for when very young children are removed from the explicit images of fire and destruction. Turn off the set for family time, and return to the news programming after youngsters are in bed.

5. Older children may also need reassurance. They may have more specific questions about death and dying, and the loss of human life they have seen on TV. They may have concern about people they know who may be in the emergency areas, or concern about a family member who is away from home.  Families in which there are emergency workers – firefighters, law enforcement, and EMS personnel – may have an especially difficult time in dealing with the crisis, when so many lives were lost among these professions. It will be natural for youngsters to be alarmed when their relatives go to work in these fields. Older kids need the comfort of their routines, as well, so try to keep them focused on homework and other familiar chores.

6. Older teens have their own set of anxieties when nations talk of war. Will they have to fight or enlist…will their parents have to do so? What about other people they know and love? Who will go to war, and who might not come home? These are difficult questions, but ones which should be discussed calmly and rationally. Parents should also be careful not to demonize the enemy…long term prejudices can be instilled by a careless, angry remark.

7. Watch your children for signs of stress or anxiety…nail biting, thumb sucking, rocking, a return to earlier fears (of the dark, sleeping alone, of strange sounds or sirens), or regressions in behavior (bed wetting, separation anxiety). Some of these behaviors can stretch already frayed nerves, and call for large doses of patience by all concerned. Be alert to nightmares and other sleep and eating changes. For families already experiencing difficulties (divorce or illness, for example) youngsters may require some extra personal attention and comforting. Children will take the lead from their parent’s behavior and attitude. The more in control adults appear to be, the more confident children will be that things will ultimately turn out all right. Children are amazing resilient; they bounce back from situations that appear to be devastating at the time. If problems linger, however, parents should be alert to warning signals and be prepared to seek professional help for all members of the family as appropriate. Hugs and affection, however, certainly come under the heading of appropriate behavior in times of emergency, so be generous with yours…

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