DALLAS – As the winds of war sweep across the country, children listening and watching news reports about the possible Second Gulf War may start displaying signs of fear and insecurity, which is a natural initial reaction.
Parents and caretakers are the key to giving children a sense of personal safety and security.
“Children will be looking to adults for guidance on how to react to war and any ongoing terror threats, so children will be relying on adults for reassurance and a sense of normalcy,” said Peter L. Stavinoha, a neuropsychologist at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas.
“It is very important that parents monitor their own level of fear and anxiety about these events,” he added.
If parents are exhibiting significant anxiety or fear, children are going to pick up on this and likely have similar reactions.
Literal interpretation. Some children will require regular reassurance about their own safety. A child who hears that America is at war may literally expect bombs to start falling in their community and soldiers to be at their doorstep.
It can be helpful for parents to remind children that the fighting is occurring halfway around the world and not close to home.
Pull the plug. It seems like a trite suggestion, but Stavinoha urges parents to turn off the television, especially if there are young children in the house. And very young children should not be exposed to media coverage of the war.
“There is nothing to be gained from having young children watch television news coverage of the war,” Stavinoha said. “Older children may be interested in watching what’s happening, but they too need to be monitored so that parents can discuss any issues or misunderstandings that come up.”
Be ready with answers. Even limiting children’s exposure to war coverage while at home may not prevent children from learning about the war.
“Naturally, children on the playground may bring up the subject and pass along information that they have received, but may not have processed it correctly, so parents need to be aware of this and be ready to help the children clear up any misunderstandings or address unanswered questions.”
Be truthful. When questions arise, parents should tell children the truth in what is an age-appropriate manner, he said.
Answer questions a child asks with the facts, but answer only the questions that were asked so that the response won’t overwhelm the child with more information than they were seeking.
It is very important that parents not stop discussion of the topic – letting children ask questions and express their anxieties can be very helpful in helping them cope with their fears, Stavinoha said.
Keep a routine. It is also very important to continue to maintain a sense of normalcy at home.
This means keeping normal routines for meals, homework, bedtime and other regular activities, but parents should not be overly rigid about these activities in an attempt to provide children with a sense of predictability and security.
When to seek help. Parents should be aware of other signs of high anxiety and fear in children. These signs take several forms and might include persistent worry about personal safety or the safety of loved ones, problems falling asleep or other sleep disturbances such as nightmares.
In addition, some children are by nature more vulnerable to periods of stress and anxiety. Examples include children who have experienced a personal loss or a significant life change.
Of particular importance, is closely monitoring children with close relatives in the armed services.
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