Helping Kids Cope With a Suddenly Unsafe World

Experts offer parents tips on preventing anxiety

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HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Feb. 14, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- The U.S. government warns of possible terrorism -- "dirty bombs" or attacks with chemical or biological weapons. Americans flock to stores to buy duct tape and sheets of plastic to seal off rooms from poisons. The prospect of war in Iraq grows.

And another ominous threat looms: North Korean ballistic missiles could reach American soil, intelligence officials say.

Little wonder a chilling sense of vulnerability haunts Americans -- not least, the littlest Americans, the children growing up in an age of anxiety.

"Pediatricians around the country are telling us kids are having trouble sleeping and concentrating because of worries about terrorism and war," says Margaret Heldring, president of America's Health Together, a broad-based partnership of mental health and primary care organizations.

"This is not just a two- or three-week problem the country has; this is a whole new era," says Heldring, a Washington, D.C., clinical psychologist. "And our kids need to grow up now learning how to handle anxiety."

How can parents best help their children amid such national angst? The answers, of course, depend largely on the age of the child, experts say.

"With preschool kids, you want to build a wall around them -- like a brick wall -- so all the information comes from parents," says Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute at the New York University Child Study Center.

Of course, that's not always possible. Even preschool classmates could spread word of danger. So, Gallagher and other experts say, it's important to talk to young children to try to find out if they know about terrorism alerts and possible international conflicts.

Preschool-age children, experts say, can confuse facts with fantasy and easily become overwhelmed by news reports. Thus, the toddlers need parents to reassure them.

Joy Faini Saab, an associate professor of early childhood education at West Virginia University, has been researching the effects of televised war on children since the Persian Gulf War 10 years ago.

"The younger children don't understand some concepts relative to time and space, Saab explains. "If they see violence on TV, it could [seem to] be right next door. They don't understand how far away it is or that it's a historical clip from the Persian Gulf War."

By school age, children will likely pick up news from TV, the radio, the Internet or peers. These youngsters need to know they can talk about their fears with parents, who should avoid minimizing or dismissing the fears, Gallagher says.

"A family could make an effort to be overly protective and find information seeps in, and I think there can be dangers of that, especially for children who are school-age," he says. "Children may ask, 'Why aren't my parents helping me with this?'"

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends parents strive to foster an open and supportive environment, acknowledging children's thoughts, feelings and reactions and answering them honestly.

"One of the worst things that can happen is kids hide their fears, and when they hide their fears, the fears get worse," Heldring says. "We don't want to drive fears underground where they can become monsters in the mind."

Experts offer other tips on talking to children about possible war and terrorism:

  • Don't make unrealistic promises -- for instance, that no more planes will crash or no one else will get hurt.

  • Limit TV coverage of terrorism threats and war (and eliminate it altogether, if possible, for preschool kids).

  • Reassure children by informing them of steps you're taking such as buying extra food or medicine, just in case. But don't make a big deal of it and explain it's unlikely their schools or houses, for instance, will become terrorism targets.

  • Maintain routines and schedules; this reassures children. Keep them involved in activities such as sports, arts and crafts, school groups and religious observances.

  • Avoid stereotyping others by nationality or religion.

  • Stay in touch with your child's school to find out about lessons related to terrorism or war and to ask about fears or questions a child may have raised. For younger children, contact day-care centers or preschools to find out if your child is exposed to topics such as terrorism and war.

  • Get the family together more often through shared activities and increase one-on-one activities like playing games.

Even if you do all you can to help your child cope, you should watch for excessive anxiety, stress or other signs that might signal a need for counseling.

These warning signs can include physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches; preoccupation with war, fighting or terrorism; significant changes in behavior; depressed or irritable moods; trouble sleeping or nightmares; changes in appetite; social withdrawal; recurring fears or anxiety about leaving parents to go to school.

More information

For more on helping children cope with threats of war and terrorism, visit the New York University Child Study Center or the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

SOURCES: Margaret Heldring, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, and president, America's Health Together, Washington, D.C.; Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., director, Parenting Institute at the New York University Child Study Center, and assistant professor, clinical psychiatry, New York University, New York City; Joy Faini Saab, Ed.D., associate professor, early childhood education, West Virginia University, Morgantown

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