When we approach the possibility of impending war, we are called upon as parents and caregivers to guide our children through the mind-fields of real and present danger. Never 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 attack on their way of life. The fear and emotional uncertainty that such an attack created, caused most adults and children to feel both anger and grief. This loss of stability threatened the very balance of our security.
Now once again, parents find themselves in a dilemma – how to face the challenge of explaining to their children that their country may be going to war. 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 the child’s understanding of such a frightening event is personal. Children operate from the realm of their own experience and egocentricity. They feel particularly threatened believing that bombs could be dropped on them personally. 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 and, therefore, young children especially, may show signs of worry. Media, as well as rumor, can be very real and frightening to children – not just for themselves but also 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 important 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 and to reach out with both actions and words to make the children feel reconnected. The key to reconnecting, of course, is communication; and listening is the way we communicate. Furthermore it can be very helpful to children to hear parents describe feelings in a literal way, so that they 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. Children that have experienced trauma such as divorce or death in their history may become especially anxious at this time. They 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 being protected by their government since the president is the paternal symbol. Let your 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 escalating scenarios. If necessary, the parents should reach out for professional help to guide and support them as well as their children.
In the meantime, there are very concrete things that we can do. Something as simple as a light in your child’s room at night can be important. It is vital that parents are honest and authentic with their children about current information. However, it is equally important to give age-appropriate information. Put it in context and communicate with your child in a responsible way. By listening and talking, parents can diffuse 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. Parents must have a plan. In this way, they can give emotional support by reinstating a sense of stability and calm. Parents should be reliable and empathetic. Now is the time to act as an adult and be careful not to burden your children with your own fears.
A way to reestablish 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, know your child and watch for changes and signs of undue stress. Parents are entitled to parent. 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. Therefore, parents and other adults should be trusted and counted on to explain pertinent information, grounded in a way that models responsible behavior in that context – and don’t underestimate your children. Children feel vulnerable and they want to know that their parents and other important adults such as teachers and mentors can and will protect them. Therefore, at this time 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 successfully prevent terrorism and keep them safe in the event of war. And remember Aristotle’s line: “Action makes one feel in control.” So take positive action such as giving blood, writing letters, sending care packages to relief agencies such as the Red Cross. This gives children something constructive to do with their emotions – and that alone can lower their anxiety. Parents must meet their children’s needs, nurture them, 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 your children with love.
In the final analysis, this can be an opportunity to reconnect with the basic values of family, and in a sense, remind us of our roots, and what is really important in life – our relationships.
Dr. Gail Gross