Parenting & Families

Stategies for Parents and Children Dealing with the Anxieties of Terrorism

Not since Pearl Harbor, have the children of America experienced an aggressive attack on our shores. On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, the United States of America took a direct hit on their way of life. The fear and emotional uncertainty that such an attack created has caused most adults and children to feel both anger and grief. This loss of stability has threatened our security and the very balance of our lives.

How can parents cope with their own anxieties while reassuring their children that they can protect them? None of us will ever forget the visceral image of jetliners deliberately crashing into the World Trade Center. And a child’s understanding of such a frightening event is personal. Since children operate from the realm of their own experience and egocentricity, they feel particularly threatened now and believe that bombs could be dropped on them. Their vulnerability can, in fact, put them in a state of high anxiety and stress. For a child, the image of terrorism is very concrete, therefore, young children especially, may show signs of worry. And media, as well as rumor, can be very real and frightening to children – not just for themselves, but in relation to their family and friends.

Young children may express fears of separation and attachment as anxiety mounts, whereas older children may become more aggressive and express anger as a way to control their feelings of fear and helplessness. Such confusion is very destabilizing, so it is a good idea to restore a sense of normalcy as quickly as possible. It is very important for parents at this time to know their children’s history of emotional stress and to reach out, with both actions and words to make their children feel reconnected.

The key to reconnecting, of course, is communication. Therefore, it can be helpful for children to hear parents describe their own feelings in a very literal way so that children can, in a sense, get their arms around their emotions. Sentences such as “I was so frightened that I felt like my stomach dropped, the way you feel in an elevator,” help describe feelings literally. Remember to listen to children’s feelings in an empathetic way. Through this listening and exchange of feelings, children and parents reconnect. Furthermore, pay attention to children that have experienced trauma such as divorce in their history for they may become especially anxious at this time and need extra reassurance both verbally and physically. Never discount your children’s feelings, and be very generous with your hugs.

Part of protecting your children is letting them know that they are protected by you, their government and their president (yet another paternal symbol). Let you children know that they can trust their leaders, especially their president, to take care of their country so that they have a safe place in which to live. Children look to parents for protection, and the parent that is dealing with their own anxiety must not burden their children with the pressure of escalating scenarios. If necessary, parents should reach out for professional help to guide and support themselves as well as their children.

In the meantime there are very concrete things that we can do. Something as simple as putting a night light in your child’s room can be important. It is essential that parents are honest with their children about the events of September 11. However, it is vital to give age appropriate information in context while communicating with your child in a responsible way. By listening and talking, parents can dispel rumors and share what children are hearing in school as well as in the media. Parents must parent, and this requires parents to monitor younger children in relation to their media exposure. Remember – young children may regress into separation and attachment-anxiety while older children may display aggressive behavior, all in an effort to lower their anxiety in relation to their stress. When children feel secure with an adult, they are more uninhibited and therefore may express their anger more freely. To gain children’s trust, parents, should have a plan. In this way, they can give emotional support by reinstating a sense of protection and calm. Parents need to be reliable and empathetic. Now is the time to act in the adult role and be careful not to burden your children with your own fears. A way to re-establish security and a sense of normalcy is to return to a normal routine as quickly as possible. Partner with your children when creating a strategy or plan for emergencies. If they feel involved they will feel empowered. After a plan is invoked, practice and rehearse it with your children through modeling and role playing. An emergency scenario similar to the school air raids and fire drills of the 1950’s, can restore balance and control to a child’s psyche.

Finally, it is important to pay attention to your child, to know your child, and watch for changes and signs of undue stress. Parents are entitled to parent, for in the end, they know what is best for their children. Children are very resilient, and when given the truth so that they know their options, they can rise to the occasion and cope.

Because children feel vulnerable, they want to know that their parents and other important adults such as caretakers, teachers, and mentors can and will protect them. In these unfamiliar times, children might need extra support. Rehearse safety measures with them. Practice safety procedures and teach your children to go to responsible adults in case of an emergency. Also, remember your children’s history¬† and act accordingly. If your child has experienced trauma in the past, they may be more affected by a threatening event. Assure your children that their president and government is doing everything possible to prevent terrorism. And remember Aristotle’s advice: “Action makes one feel in control.” So take positive action such as giving blood, writhing letters, or sending care packages to the relief agencies in both New York and Washington. This gives a child something constructive to do with their emotions, and that alone can lower anxiety. Parents must meet their children’s needs, nurture them, and be empathetic and reliable. If your child needs extra security, be there. Focus your attention on your child; create child-centered activities such as reading and sharing time together. Don’t worry about spoiling your children; you cannot spoil children with love.