Talking to Kids About Terrorism

The pictures broadcast in the early hours of Tuesday were startling. That they were also "live" made them beyond belief. That one attack came right after another took the experience into the surreal.

It is not an exaggeration to say that an entire nation has been riveted to its TV sets since roughly 9am EDT, Tuesday morning. Unfortunately, many of those viewers have been our children, who are learning a horrifying lesson on terrorism, in vivid Technicolor. What is difficult for the adult mind to fathom, is surely impossible for a child. So, as their questions begin, our biggest question as parents is, how do we discuss this with them?

Child Psychologist Amy Feld stresses, "An open dialogue with your children is essential. For a child, the questions are often scarier than the answers they receive. Even if the best you can offer is ĎI donít know, í they need to feel secure in asking the question." And clinical & medical psychologist Michael D. Connor concurs, "In one violent or traumatic moment the world can become unpredictable, dangerous and frightening. Whether it is a small-town occurrence or a national one as seen today, it is important to reassure your children that they are safe."

He suggests, "Take time to talk about the events, especially as their thoughts and feelings arise. They may have questions right away, or they may surface many days later. Listen carefully. Reassure them they are okay and just be with them. Don't avoid regular activities. Especially for younger children, routine is essential to their sense of security."

Routine for most children on a weekday revolves around attending school. While many parents decided to keep their children home today, experienced school principal, Steven Hill of Oregon points out that may not be in the best interest of the child. "A parentís natural reaction to an incident of this magnitude is to pull their children closer, yet this may serve to trouble the child even more. Allowing the child to go about their routine and be with their friends is important. All schools have a crisis plan that goes into effect during these times to help students deal with the emotions and discuss the questions that may arise."

He also brings up a question posed to him by a concerned parent, "I was asked if we were going to run an emergency drill today. Honestly, that is the last thing we would do to the children. It would only serve to traumatize them unnecessarily."

What may surprise many parents is the level of insight a child will have into the terrorism. My own child, age nine, after watching the footage of the second plane impacting with the World Trade Center, asked, "Didnít the bad person know they were going to die too?" This led to a whole conversation about belief systems, religion, and the roots of terrorism itself. What is particularly troubling for her is that she understands that when a large plane collides with a building, at that moment many people lost their lives.

It is this understanding that may lead to a child exhibiting stress symptoms normally reserved for adults. Dr. Connor advises, "Many children can function very well in a crisis, but may eventually experience some symptoms such as, anxiety, fear, panic or anger, difficulty sleeping, waking throughout the night, nightmares or daydreaming. Also not uncommon are change in appetite, reliving images of traumatic events or dwelling on the event. A child may become easily angered or upset or may withdraw or become reluctant to be open or talk. Finally, headaches, stomach aches, indigestion are common by products of this type of stress."

So how to aid your child when you are also experiencing the same sense of disruption and disbelief? Adults know all too well that the events that began this morning are only the beginning. Repercussions will follow, as will up to the minute news accounts of the devastation and loss of life involved. Dr. Simon Stratton, Child Psychologist suggests turning off the TV, "Tune in for updates and to stay informed, but do not let it dominate the atmosphere of your home. Allow your children to watch their favorite programs or movies."

Personally, I am truly shaken by what has transpired. My head cannot comprehend the cruelty and intent of those who wrought this carnage. My heart cannot comprehend the fear and sorrow as so many begin to learn of, and deal with, the loss of their loved ones. Yet as a mother of three, I can concur with the experts that talking with your children is essential, and add one additional tip of my own.

When the words wonít come or the answers are out of reach, pull your child close. Sometimes a simple hug can provide a healing that a million answers never will.