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After terror strikes, talk to your children

Here's how to communicate with your child about news of terrorist attacks: First, offer some realistic reassurance. For example, you can point out how quickly the government stopped air traffic, that Duluth is not all that important to the outsid...

Here's how to communicate with your child about news of terrorist attacks:
First, offer some realistic reassurance. For example, you can point out how quickly the government stopped air traffic, that Duluth is not all that important to the outside world, so it is an unlikely target, and the way we have survived other tragedies and attacks on the United States.
Then let your children know that to be horrified and scared is normal. Invite them to talk about their thoughts and fears, e.g. "Sometimes it helps to say it out loud. What are you thinking?"
Correct any errors or misinterpretations in their thinking using as brief a sentence as possible.
Ask open-ended questions to keep them talking as long as they seem to need to talk, or reflect back what you think they are saying or feeling to let them know you understand, or to help you understand.
If they have a question, and you know the answer and feel OK about how to explain it, do. Remember to keep statements brief and leave lots of room for them to react to each one. If you do not know the answer or are afraid you could not explain it in a helpful way, feel free not to answer. You can say "That's really confusing, isn't it?" or "I don't know ...", or "Let's see if we can find out more about that tomorrow?"
Be open about your own feelings, but also make it clear you can handle your feelings. If you need to talk to another adult first so you can speak more calmly, do, but don't try to hide your feelings. Most children are too good at picking up the signs that something is bothering you, and will be more upset if they do not know what it is. Make it clear that sadness, horror, anger, etc. are normal, but that you will not let the terrorists win by giving in to fear or hatred.
Ask your child what specific things might help him/her feel better tonight and tomorrow. For example, extra snuggle time, prayers, activities.
End with more realistic reassurance.
In addition, if just talking does not feel like enough, many children respond well to something to do that makes them feel less helpless. This might be getting together with friends to plan a way to help children of people who were hurt, thinking of things to do to make Duluth a "no hate" city, or whatever creative ideas you come up with. If the children have the ideas, it often works even better.
With young children:
Minimize exposure, either through television, news photos or overhearing people talk about it.
Give them simple facts and a lot of reassurance. Very young children usually do better if you list with them all the people who will be making sure they are safe in the next few days.
Don't belittle their fears, admit it is scary. Also, don't pretend you are not bothered if you are. They are very likely to sense something is wrong, and they may make up even worse possibilities than what happened.
Give as much physical cuddling as they want.
After talking about it briefly, make some suggestions of things to do together to get their mind on more pleasant things.
With adolescents:
Give them plenty of time to talk. Encourage them to talk to you and other adults, not just their friends. Sometimes they do best if a couple of adults from different families talk with a group of adolescents.
Encourage them to relate what happened to broader issues in the world, as well as their personal reactions.
If they are very bothered by what happened, talk about things they can do to make the world a better place, where people are less likely to turn into terrorists, and where those who are fine help those who are hurt, etc.
Brenda L. Bergman, Ph.D., L.P., works at the Human Development Center in Duluth.

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