Terrorism: Helping Our Children Cope

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman

What do we tell the children now that the "conflict" is no longer just "a situation" but has escalated to become a war that is still waiting to be titled?
After a year and a half, we worry more than ever about our children's safety, and can't help but ask ourselves, while trying to squelch our own anxiety, just how are our children coping? There was a time when children could be lost in their blissful innocence until close to army age. Now even a preschooler is uncomfortably familiar with the words that bespeak this escalation of violence and something so mundane as waiting for the bus or grabbing a slice of pizza is a set-up for tremendous anxiety and concern.
Tools that once reduced stress have become less effective for the entire family and sometimes just getting through the day feels like a major accomplishment.

Security issues still remain the major concern for both parents and children alike as they question the odds of leaving the relative shelter of their home and returning unharmed. As responsible parents we are expected to protect our children but this has become a more onerous task. A class trip, a visit to the mall, a concert, arrival at school, once given little thought, are now seriously debated as parents weigh the risks and benefits. As parents, we hope that at such a difficult time, in spite of dealing with our own insecurities and fears, we can make our children's journey a little easier.

Psychologists are very much aware of the fact that the longer the difficulties go on, the less prepared we may feel to respond to the current threats of increased violence. One simply cannot remain at a high state of alertness and preparedness without showing signs of psychological wear and tear. At the very least, these may take the form of severe fatigue and stress. Initially, with the perceived threat of danger, we prepare ourselves for the inevitable and move forward. However, a pervasive sense of not knowing if, when and where violence will break out, whether it will intensify and who will be next, places us under tremendous tension. This roller-coaster ride of emotional upheaval increases our stress levels dramatically, and for those adults not already listening for the sounds of planes overhead, many are contemplating departure from our country. If we as adults are feeling "out of control", we can only imagine how war impacts on our children? What can we do to help our children cope effectively?

1. Listen to your children. There has never been a more important time to talk to and with your children. Most children know far more than we realize and if you are affected, then chances are, so are they. If not at home, they are likely to hear things from another child on the playground. They see you and their teachers as more distracted and less productive. Simple decisions now require tremendous thought. Not raising the current "war" for discussion may result in their feeling it's not a safe topic to talk about. While you may be trying to protect them, they may assume you don't care. They too need to talk and have their feelings validated. As parents, you provide reassurance that all is okay with their world. A simple "What do you think is going on?" or "How are you doing?" over a hot chocolate or when you cuddle with them at night may enable them to engage in a conversation that might otherwise be missed.

2. Reassure your children that their safety takes top priority. Most children seek reassurance that their world will remain safe and unchanged. In spite of what you may be feeling, what can you tell them that will enable them to feel secure? Children need you to make decisions that take into account their well-being. Young children need to know that you will be there for them and if not you, then someone who you designate as a warm, loving and trusting person. They must know who will be looking out for their safety and fulfill even such basic needs as who will make their sandwich or pick them up after school. Older children worry more about their own safety and that of adults. Death becomes more real and some children become preoccupied, appear more depressed and are clearly more affected by the day-to-day situation. Others appear oblivious. As children get older, they may disagree with your evaluation of a potentially dangerous situation and request that you be more or less permissive. By nature, many adolescents are risk takers and are self-absorbed to the point where they feel invincible. You are put in the position of asking yourself how comfortable you are with your choices, weighing the pros and cons, reestablishing some control and then moving on as best as you can to show them that their world remains okay.

3. Provide age and developmentally appropriate and direct information when at all possible. The impact of the current events on a child very much depends on your child's age and stage of emotional development, temperament, proximity to perceived violence, and previous exposure. You are the best one to judge. Children in general, respond differently than adults. One minute they may be intensely preoccupied with details with what is going on and the next minute, they may be laughing with a friend. This is normal. Our words need to be carefully chosen and we need to ensure that the message we intend to give is well understood. It is important to listen to the question that is really being asked and respond to that. If you are not sure just what that is, ask them to elaborate, have them ask the question in a different way or have them be more specific so that you can correct any inaccuracies. It is perfectly fine to acknowledge that you have concerns and that you as a parent can't answer all of their questions. Sometimes you can find someone who has the answers, but often, you too can only guess. Many times it is what we don't know that causes us the greatest fear as we often imagine the worst. It is very helpful to point this out to our children. Most children do best with simple and straightforward explanations and not a lot of unnecessary details.

4. Always tell children the truth. Be honest and upfront but don't overwhelm children with your fear. Voice your uncertainties but substantiate your opinion with facts. Lively political discussions can be helpful for older children if they can better understand why there are no simple solutions. Watch out for blanket statements that do more harm than good. You are their ultimate educator and what they take away from this will reflect your values. It is more helpful to say you hate terrorism and explain how destructive it is, rather than to say you hate the Palestinian people. Let children know that while we all want friends, we have to do what we feel is right and sometimes we lose friends because of it. There are political decisions and ramifications that are difficult to understand and while it may feel like the world is against us, we have to make our own very difficult decisions.

5. Teach children to be street-smart. Children need to be aware of safety issues within the immediate environment of their own home or school and need to know what to look out for in a crowd. As children become older and have more freedom, they must be increasingly aware of their surroundings. Anything suspicious or that makes them feel uncomfortable needs an appropriate response. They need to be aware of the package on the table or the person standing next to them and know that whether it is to get off the bus, leave a store, or talk to an adult in authority, they have your full permission to react responsibly and trust their gut feelings. These discussions can be casual and natural and should never elicit fear. Children can practice this through games and role-playing various safety scenarios.

Enlist their help and use their suggestions as to how to make your own immediate environment a safe one. In some situations, a cell phone for a child is no longer a luxury. Children should know how you can be reached and have emergency phone numbers.

6. Help children feel in control. Try and give predictable routines during these unpredictable times. Keep schedules, play dates and other routines as normal as possible. Don't discontinue living yet! In other words, do as much as you did before that was safe to do and have your children do the same. Our preoccupation is a poor excuse for skipping homework or meals. Be flexible and provide your children with as much freedom as you are comfortable with, while providing appropriate discipline and rules. This will help your child to feel more secure when the rest of his world may feel out of control and unstable. This is especially true for teenagers. Give children choices and realize that while the matzav may be on your mind a good part of the day, children may visit and revisit the situation for short periods of time only. Turn off television as children are not able to differentiate what is real from what is not and do not realize that the horrendous images shown over and over again are not new incidents. Instead, let them take turns renting a video, choosing a craft or reading to each other. Children can be encouraged to draw pictures, write stories or keep a diary to enable them to express their fears and have greater control. Have children make cards, an album and gift packages for soldiers or those injured. Help encourage children to pray, practice relaxing and feel that they are in control.

7. Take a break. Even a one-day vacation at the beach lets everyone leave the current reality for a while and return refreshed. Get distracted and put some fun back into your lives. This is especially true with the upcoming holidays. Really make Passover the children's holiday that it ought to be.

In order to look after our children, we must take care of ourselves. Our children benefit most when we take control over our own lives and are good role models. What we say and do impacts on them in every way. If we are calm and handle things well then so will they. When changes are sudden, unexpected, violent or complex, coping becomes all the more tenuous for each and every one of us. If you or your children are not coping well, get professional help immediately. Talking with a qualified professional can lighten your burden significantly. Children need someone to whom they can confide their concerns and if it can't be you, find someone to help.
Through our actions, we encourage our children to hope for a better tomorrow and convey our faith that things will ultimately improve.
While there are no easy answers, enabling your child to feel good is one of the best gifts you can provide during these very troubling times.

Dr. Batya L. Ludman is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.
She works with children of all ages and their families, as well as with adults and couples, in short term solution focused psychotherapy. She specializes in bereavement and loss, stress, anxiety, depression, parenting issues, behavioral problems, marital/communication problems and sexual dysfunction. She has conducted workshops on bereavement, stress management and critical incident stress and has published extensively in both the professional and lay literature. Send correspondence to batyaludman@yahoo.com