Helping Children Understand the Aftermath of 9/11
- Judith Myers-Walls, a member of the Lafayette (IN) Church of the Brethren, is a specialist in child development and family studies, has researched children's reactions to wars and disasters and offers advice for parents and others on how to help children cope with the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Centers and Pentagon. For information from Myers-Walls on children and stress Click Here.
- Trauma ~ Helping Your Child Cope: Guidelines for Parents and Caregivers After Traumatic Events. Disaster Childcare, an ecumenical ministry of the Church of the Brethren General Board, has made this four page flyer available:
- When Children Ask About War: Helping Your Children Cope with War and Violence. Another four-page flyer from Disaster Childcare (and see text below).
Sixty years ago it might have been possible to shield a child from the grisly details of war. Sixty years ago the horrors of nuclear disaster were unknown to any of us. Today's children live under this and other terrible shadows each day of their lives.
Today's children are exposed to the news media, to war movies and TV shows, and to frightening rumors in conversation with their peers, in school and at home. Violent conflict from across the world is in every living room that contains a TV set. Many American families have one or more family members serving in the United States Armed Forces. Others have families living in volatile locations around the globe. Now the United States is focus of violent conflict and feeling the pain of many lost lives.
Every child in the world is threatened, in one way or another, by war and rumors of war, the economic deprivations and emotional scars of war, and the possibility of nuclear or chemical disaster. How do parents, family members, teachers, pastors, day care providers, and babysitters talk to children about war and its deadly impact?
This booklet has been prepared by the Disaster Child Care Program with the hope that this will...
- help caring adults respond to the questions and feelings of children who are hurting from the pain of separation from or death of a parent or family member because of warfare.
- provide reassurance to parents and other caring adults that you can help the anxious child cope with fears and other strong emotions.
- offer some tips on how you can deal more effectively with the behavior changes and "acting out" that may result from unusual stress occurring when a major international conflict touches the lives of children.
YOUR CHILD NEEDS YOU
You are worried about violence and war. Your children will reflect your emotions. When parents are stressed, children experience stress. When parents worry, so do the children. When parents express strong emotion such as anger, young children wonder if they are guilty of doing something to cause this reaction. And just as you as an adult need support and opportunity for expression in order to deal with the stress of frightening events, so also do your children. You will not have all the answers to their questions, but you can provide a calm, loving presence and a safe place to ask those frightening questions.
YOU CAN UNDERSTAND WHAT CHILDREN FEAR
No matter what the disaster or potential danger, young children experience the same basic fears. Because their survival is dependent on the protection and nurture of their parents and family, they fear
- being left alone; separation from or abandonment by their parents or familiar adult caregivers.
- death of a parent or caretaker; fear of their own death.
- reoccurrence of the disaster; being hurt, perhaps again, physically or emotionally.
YOU CAN REASSURE CHILDREN
Reassure your child that he or she is not the cause of the bad events happening in the world nor the cause of your strong feelings. This is particularly true for children under age six, who tend to view the world as revolving around themselves. However, even older children may assume that if you are angry or withdrawn, then you must be angry with them. Be clear with your children that your strong feelings about the war are not directed toward them.
YOU CAN ACKNOWLEDGE FEELINGS
Acknowledge and validate your children's fears, their anger, their frustration. Let children know that grown-ups also get scared about war. If a friend's parent or sibling is killed in violence or war, then the child will fear that this loss could happen to him or her. Remind them that everybody feels fearful in this kind of a conflict: the soldiers on both sides, the children and families on both sides. Acknowledge any real danger and assure them that you are there to keep them safe. Do not dwell on the fear. Offer extra hugs, read comforting stories, play soothing music.
YOU CAN ENCOURAGE EXPRESSION
Encourage open expression of their feelings. Invite your children to talk about what they see and hear about war and how they feel: fear, anger, confusion, apathy. Accept whatever feelings are expressed as being valid for that child at that time. Children who do not yet have the language skills to express feelings verbally will benefit from "telling their story" with paints, clay, sandbox or water play, puppets or dramatic play. The most valuable gift you can give a child is genuine listening and unconditional acceptance of his or her own inner experience. This allows the child to move through the fear and strong feelings and to develop coping skills and strength of character.
YOU CAN PROTECT AND COMFORT
Let your child know that you are there to provide protection and care. Caution: Do not lie to children or evade their questions. Young children trust the adults in their lives. They believe what parents and other adults tell them until experience proves otherwise. If there is a clear and present danger, be truthful. Do assure them that the important adults in their lives are doing everything they can to keep them safe. Spend extra time holding, touching, hugging your children as a means of communicating support, togetherness, and safety. Whether or not there is actual or immediate threat, children will be comforted by the presence of calm, reassuring adults around them.
YOU CAN BE HONEST
Be honest with children by giving them factual information when they ask questions. Counter rumors, exaggerated claims and stereotypes of the enemy with whatever truth you know. Some information may be worrisome, but no more than what children can create in their own imaginings based on bits and pieces of overheard and perhaps misunderstood statements. Allow your children to ask questions so you can correct misinformation.
YOU CAN MONITOR TV VIEWING
Do not bring the nightmare of war into your living room as though it were a football game simply be turned off. If your children watch news of violence or war with you, be prepared to answer questions about destruction and death. Very young children only want to know that they are safe and that war is not nearby. Older children may have a fascination for the machinery of war, for grisly details, for keeping score. Remind them that war hurts people everywhere. Remind them that families like yours on the other side of war are experiencing fear and loss. Do not encourage hatred. People are victims of war, not the enemy.
YOU CAN DEAL WITH DEATH OPENLY
Children need to know that death is a sad part of the war game and that many people die in a war. When death occurs in the family, children should be informed, simply and honestly, without big words and lengthy explanations. This is difficult when the parent is in grief. The very young child approaches life with open-minded curiosity. The "kind" lies of well-meaning adults will serve only to shut down their natural curiosity and delay the development of healthy coping skills. Children need extra support and the opportunity to express their feelings of loss and abandonment just as adults do. The grieving family whose husband, daddy, mommy, brother or sister is killed may need the help of a professional counselor.
YOU CAN BE AWARE OF STRESS
Be aware of the unique ways your child communicates symptoms of stress: increased irritability, unusual crying spells or tantrums, increased activity or restlessness, changes in eating habits, difficulty falling asleep, night-time fears, nervous habits (hair twirling, nail biting, thumb sucking), regression (returning to "outgrown" behaviors such as bed-wetting, need for a night-light, or "blankie"), whining, clinging. Adults need to be sensitive to the meaning of a particular stress reaction. In times of war, as in times of extreme family conflict, the fears of being hurt or abandoned, whether realistic or imagined, are the most likely causes of these symptoms in an otherwise healthy child.
Caring adults cannot eliminate all stress. However, the child's ability to cope successfully with stress can be enhanced by practicing the responses suggested in this booklet. Questions may need to be answered and reassurances given many times. Emotional healing from trauma and stress is a process, not a one-time event. Your special support and attention will help in most cases. However, if you are concerned about your child, contact your pastor, your school counselor, or your local mental health center for referrals.
WHEN CHILDREN ASK ABOUT WAR
A publication of
Emergency Response/Service Ministries
Church of the Brethren General Board
Disaster Child Care
P.O. Box 188, 601 Main Street, New Windsor, MD 21776
Phone: (410) 635-8748
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