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Help Your Child Make Sense of a Scary World

Sniper attacks may call for conversations with your kids

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 9, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Maybe they've heard the frightening news from a friend, glimpsed it on TV, or listened to a graphic radio report.

Children -- even little ones -- may be all too aware of the deadly sniper shootings that have stunned suburban Washington, D.C.

And specialists agree that parents should move quickly to address their children's concerns, to reduce their worries and restore their sense of security.

"If parents don't talk about it, the message is it's too scary to talk about," says Dr. Joseph F. Hagan, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on psychological aspects of child and family health.

"If you don't bring it up, you miss the opportunity to reassure," Hagan adds. "I think the first piece of advice is to frame it: 'It is horrible, but it won't happen to you.' "

The way you reassure your children is as important as what you say. "The effect of how you talk about it is very important," Hagan says. For instance, don't broach the subject when you're upset or worried, because those emotions will come through and can upset your child, he says.

Hagan says children of all ages, even older teenagers, shouldn't watch the evening news without their parents.

"We're bringing pretty horrendous stuff into out living rooms," he says.

Headline-grabbing events like the sniper shootings -- or the 9/11 attacks, the anthrax-by-mail terror campaign, or the string of school shootings -- are often rebroadcast over and over. While adults can intellectually process such information, children often assimilate images differently, he notes.

Seeing a violent act several times "makes it more real for children," Hagan says. But if you watch television with your children, you can put matters into a safer context for them.

James Maddux, a clinical psychologist at George Mason University in Virginia, says that when a child brings up the subject, a parent should ask what she understands about the situation, and then answer honestly. "Kids hear all kinds of strange things from other children," and what they fear may be much worse than reality, he says.

Maddux recalls being a seven-year-old and believing all kinds of frightening -- though false -- stories about the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. "I would have been better off knowing the truth," he says.

Even a child of four or five may be ready to talk about something as unsettling as the sniper attacks, but parents are the best experts to gauge what is healthy for their child. "Most parents know how much information a child is ready for," he says.

Maddux, echoing Hagan, says put the child's fear into perspective. The odds that a child will be hurt by sniper fire are "thousands of times less than being struck by lightning or being hit on the highway on the way home," he says.

Also, simply being present for your child will make him feel safe, he notes. A parent's presence "provides true physical safety and a sense of psychological safety in children," Maddux says.

Older children can benefit from discussing with their parents what they can actually do to be safe, such as being aware of their surroundings, says Lisa Opipari-Arrigan, a pediatric psychologist at the University of Michigan. "Help the child feel they have some control," she says.

Children today are exposed to more scenes of violence than ever before, Opipari-Arrigan says. "Help by keeping lines of communication open. Provide reassurance about their safety," she says.

Be observant and note if your child is particularly moody, seems excessively worried, has sleep problems, or is stressed about world events, Opipari-Arrigan says.

But perhaps the most reassuring words for parents come from Maddux: "I think sometimes adults exaggerate children's fears. Children are more psychologically resilient than we give them credit for."

What To Do

For more information on helping children deal with crisis, check the Rocky Mountain Region Disaster Mental Health Newsletter, or the American Psychological Association.

SOURCES: Joseph F. Hagan, M.D., chairman of the committee on psychological aspects of child and family health, American Academy of Pediatrics; James E. Maddux, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, George Mason University, Fairmont, Va; Lisa Opipari-Arrigan; Ph.D., pediatric psychologist, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
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