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Treat children gently in times of national conflict, tragedy
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Parents can enable their children to cope better with conflict and tragedy in the world by talking openly and honestly, and remembering that children crave security particularly in troubling times.
Child development experts recommend parents take into consideration a number of factors, including age, maturity and interest level, and exposure to news media, when talking to their children about war, violence and terrorism.
"A child's reaction to a disaster will vary depending on many factors, but many children express common fears during or after a disaster: darkness, abandonment and death. Children have trouble understanding what the disaster is and why it happens," explained Louise Davis, a family and child development specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service.
The specialist encouraged parents to shield their children as much as possible from television news coverage, which can be quite upsetting even for older children.
"Parents really need to just turn the television off while their children are awake, which will eliminate the chance of their children seeing frightening images. They should limit their own viewing to later in the night after the children have gone to sleep," Davis said. "War and violent news events are just too much information to take in, especially for a young child."
- Parents can help their children cope with conflict by remembering that young people have complex and often confusing emotions. Davis offered several points for parents to consider:
- Children do not have mature reasoning skills.
- Children lack an accurate understanding of cause and effect.
- Children need help with handling stress.
- Children need to discuss stress issues honestly and at their level of understanding.
Experts agree that age plays a significant role in determining how parents should approach their children about confusing and often frightening events. In the days and weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Sesame Workshop Education and Research specialists compiled a list of appropriate responses to children's questions and concerns. That complete report is available on the Internet at http://www.sesameworkshop.org.
For preschool children, experts recommend discussing crisis events only if the child asks a specific question. Because most children this age cannot grasp the concepts of war and suffering, parents should keep explanations simple.
"Parents need only assure children that they are loved and will be kept safe," Davis said. "And they should use the opportunity to teach their children how to express their fear, sadness, confusion or anger in a healthy way, such as drawing pictures and explaining the emotions represented there."
Approach children ages 6 to 11 as soon as possible because they will likely already know about the event through media reports and other children's comments. Parents should start by asking children what they know about the event in order to understand their concerns.
Adults should be honest about their own feelings regarding troubling events in the world.
"Tell young people if you feel afraid, angry or frustrated. It can help them to know that others also are upset by the events," said Purdue University Extension specialist Judith A. Myers-Walls. "If you tell them about your feelings, you also can tell them about how you deal with the feelings."
Parents also can help their children feel secure by spending extra time with them and reassuring them of their family's safety. Learning about different cultures and countries will teach children empathy and help them learn to identify with people they see as different from themselves.
Getting involved with volunteer efforts and donating money, clothing or supplies through the American Red Cross will help older children and teens understand that people are not powerless and that good things can result even from tragic events.
"It is not enough to let children take action by themselves," Myers-Walls said, emphasizing that when parents and other adults work to make a difference, children will more quickly regain a sense of hope in a positive future. "And hope is one of the most valuable gifts we can give children and ourselves."
Log onto MSUcares.com for a list of Internet sites with tips for talking to children about war and other crisis events.