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Helping Kids Cope With Worries of War

Parents can do much to keep anxiety at bay

FRIDAY, March 21, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Some children jump at the wail of a siren or the roar of an airplane overhead, wondering if it could be an enemy attack.

Some can't sleep at night because of fears of war and terrorism.

Others struggle to puzzle out why their country has invaded another country when so many people protested against the war.

Psychologists and other experts say these reactions are typical of many children of a generation suddenly thrust into a collective state of anxiety as the war with Iraq intensifies.

Some younger children are blessed with blissful ignorance and the magical power of illusion. Says New York City child psychologist Patricia Saunders: "I have one kid who's 7 saying, 'I'm not worried, because Spider Man is gonna come help us.'"

Perhaps parents could use some superhero powers at a time like this. Not to scale buildings, but to help their children navigate unfamiliar emotional terrain: to know just what to say (and not to say), to ease anxiety, to help kids cope with the unthinkable.

"Kids' anxiety has been through the roof," says Saunders, director of the Manhattan Mental Health Center. "Kids are bewildered. They're wondering if anybody in their family is going to get hurt or if there's going to be another 9/11."

How parents can best respond depends, of course, on the age of the children as well as their temperament, interest and knowledge of war and possible terrorism, experts say.

Some, like Richard Gallagher, director of the Parenting Institute at the New York University Child Study Center, say preschool-age children should be shielded from news of the war and possible terrorism.

But that's not always possible, with ubiquitous media coverage making even some very young children well aware of the war in Iraq and possible terrorism threats at home.

"It's important to let the child give you hints and follow a child's lead in what they are ready to talk about," says Judith Myers-Walls, an associate professor and human development specialist at Purdue University's Department of Child Development and Family Studies.

With young children, simple reassurance can be vital, Myers-Walls says. "I think telling kids, 'No matter what, I will do everything I can to keep you safe and no matter what happens, I love you' is all they need to know," she says.

Younger children, psychologists say, can easily confuse fantasy, reality and historic events.

"The terrorism level is 'high' and then they see the bombing on TV, and they get mixed up," says Los Angeles psychologist Robert R. Butterworth. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he says, "all the images of all these terrible things happening kind of get all mixed together in their psyche."

Parents should conduct "child's war briefings" -- with clear, understandable explanations of news, suggests Butterworth, a nationally recognized expert on helping kids cope with war and terrorism.

Then they should give children a chance to share their feelings, he adds. He has used maps, toy tanks, soldiers and aircraft to explain war to children.

"The crucial point for parents is not blocking out the war news to children, but explaining war facts truthfully to children according to their age and emotional development," Butterworth says.

How young is too young?

"A lot of parents will say, 'My child is only 5 years old, and I don't want to ruin their outlook on life,'" he says. "But other preschool or kindergarten kids are talking about it, so if the kids are not hearing information from parents, which is reality, they may be getting a distorted reality from someone else."

Certainly, overexposure to violent images is a risk for children at any age, so parents should set limits on the amount of news coverage kids watch, child psychologists say.

But trying to avoid all coverage or talk of war can also send the wrong message.

By doing this, Myers-Walls says, "Parents have given the impression that this is a taboo subject. And pretty soon, you've got neither side talking to the other and not helping to support each other through a tough situation."

Myers-Walls suggests parents seek "teachable moments" to talk with their children about values, fundamental principles, morality, faith and hope for a better, safer world.

Avoid stereotyping by religion or nationality, she says, and speak of bad actions, not bad people.

"Help children understand that people can choose their behaviors," she says. "Even if they have done something bad in the past, they can choose to do something good in the future."

Other expert tips on helping children cope with war and the threat of terrorism:

  • Stick to routines and schedules. Keep kids involved in activities such as sports, arts and crafts, school groups and religious observances.
  • Be honest and talk in terms children can understand. Explain it's very unlikely their school or house, for instance, will become terrorism targets. But don't make unrealistic promises -- for instance, that no more planes will crash or no one else will get hurt.
  • Tell children of steps being taken to protect them by family, schools, police, firefighters and the military.
  • Avoid glorifying war or minimizing its horrors.
  • Help children understand the United States is not angry with the Iraqi people, but its leaders. Avoid stereotypes; explain that most Muslim -- and other -- people are peace-loving and friendly.
  • Acknowledge and validate your child's reactions, fears and thoughts. Make clear you know that their questions and concerns matter and are appropriate.
  • 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 together more often as a family through shared activities and increase one-on-one activities such as playing games.
  • Get help for a child if you detect signs of excessive anxiety or stress that might signal a need for counseling. 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; and recurring fears or anxiety about leaving parents to go to school.

More information

For more on helping children cope with war and the threat of terrorism, visit the National Mental Health Association or the New York University Child Study Center.

SOURCES: Patricia Saunders, Ph.D., child psychologist, director, Manhattan Mental Health Center, New York City; Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., director, Parenting Institute, New York University Child Study Center, and assistant professor, clinical psychiatry, New York University, New York City; Judith Myers-Walls, Ph.D., associate professor, human development specialist, Department of Child Development and Family Studies, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; Robert R. Butterworth, Ph.D., psychologist, International Trauma Associates, Los Angeles; photo courtesy of U.S. Army
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