Susan C. Stone's Practical Parenting Blog dotcom

Terrorism: How to Help Children Cope

Posted on: March 25, 2016


We are living in a dangerous and scary world. As adults, we struggle with carrying on a normal life while seeing the possibility of random terrorism. While most adults develop coping strategies, what are our children to do with the information they inevitably receive? Even if you attempt to shield them, children as young as preschoolers are exposed – through television, radio, newspaper photos and playground chatter. What can you do to recognize if your child has been exposed and how can you help them?

Being appropriate and aware of how you act and react is the key to your children feeling safe, secure and optimistic about life in  an uncertain world. The following are 8 ways you can help:

  1. BE PARENTAL – convey that you are in charge; make clear the distinction between adult and kid decisions; continue with the same rules and limits and their enforcement;  let children know it’s YOUR responsibility and that of other adults to keep them safe. They only believe this if they perceive you as “the big person in charge”.
  2. CONTROL THE FLOW OF INFORMATION – control access to the news according to the age of your child and their need to know. Very young children should be protected, as well as you can, from any information about events. Older children will receive information and need you to put it in context for them. Avoid constant, repetitive news viewing which increases anxiety for both adults and children. Do not have adult conversations about frightening events in front of children.
  3. COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR CHILDREN – to answer questions, correct misconceptions, and to provide education, perspective and reassurance. Be available for children to express their feelings and concerns. This will most likely happen when children have alone time with you. Also, be aware of children’s non-verbal expressions of concern and fears – play themes, changes in their habits, signs of stress. If it seems they have concerns, you need to bring up the topic – “It seems like you’re worried about something” or “You’re not wanting to sleep alone. Why do you think that changed?” Do not answer their questions in a dismissive or minimizing way. Instead, acknowledge and label their feelings. Explanations and answers should be honest, simple, accurate and age-appropriate; answer only what they want to know. Below Grade 2, help them distinguish between reality and fantasy, between cartoon villians and heroes and real terrorists, soldiers and rescuers. Their imaginative play themes, drawings and story-telling are opportunities to correct misconceptions. For older children, incorporate events, issues and geography into your responses. Teach media literacy so children understand why news coverage is so intense and on-going. For all children, it’s important to provide perspective. Put information they receive into a broader context beyond their literal and limited viewpoint – there are very few terrorists, they are unlikely to be present at an event, war does end, good guys win.
  4. PROVIDE REASSURANCE – Young children only need to know that  you can and will protect them. Older children benefit from understanding the actions adults are taking in response to terrorism.
  5. MAINTAIN ROUTINES – Keep to normal daily schedules and activities. Continue normal expectations for children’s behavior and schoolwork. Help children restore a sense of control – give them age-appropriate decisions, plan proactive activities for them such as collecting money or toys for victims, sending letters to rescuers or military personnel. Keep family traditions and plan for future activities.
  6. BE  AWARE OF YOUR REACTIONS – Don’t fall apart in front of children – present yourself as being calm and in control. Be aware if you are acting more impatient, yelling more or being preoccupied. Do not discuss events on an adult level when your children can hear you – this includes phone conversations.
  7. COORDINATE EFFORTS BETWEEN HOME AND SCHOOL – Exchange information with teachers about children’s displays of stress at school or at home. Schools should inform parents of social studies, current events lessons or relevant discussions which may be reflected in concerns or behavioral changes at home.
  8. BE ALERT TO ONGOING STRESS IN CHILDREN – Children can suffer from PTSD as can adults, If this is the case, seek professional help. (Please see my upcoming blog of signs of stress in children.)
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