Helping Children Cope During Times of War & Disasters


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During times of war and disaster, anxiety and uncertainty run high and children are quick to pick up on the resulting tensions and concerns. With the constant threat of terrorism since the tragedy of September 11, 2001, most parents have had practice in helping their children cope with violence, confusion, and uncertainty. As their child's first and most important teacher, it is important that parents recognize situations like these as another "teachable moment", difficult though it may be.

Here are a few suggestions parents may find helpful:

  • All children and their particular circumstances are unique. It is important that we sensitively respond to each child individually, based on his own needs. While a few children may not seem bothered by the war or other circumstances, others may experience a range of emotions including fear, anger, sadness, worry, confusion, doubt, and guilt. Kids know more and talk more than their parents realize. Every youngster will benefit from an extra dose of love, wisdom, and sensitivity during these times.
  • Keep family routines uninterrupted and enjoy usual times of family fun. Use family rituals and traditions to maintain normalcy and consistency. This is especially true for young children.
  • Observe carefully and listen attentively for clues from your child about his inner world. Reflect on how well you know your child so you can identify unusual behaviors. Notice carefully your child's tone of voice, body posture, facial expression, and indirect questions. Young children may express their concerns by being withdrawn, clingy, irritable, rather than by words. Young children can be allowed to draw pictures or act out their worries by using toys, while older children can be encouraged to be more verbal about how they feel.
  • Reassure your child that you will do all you can to keep him safe.
  • In a way that is appropriate to your child's needs and level of development, be there when he needs a hug or seem confused or fearful. Be generous with heartfelt smiles and affectionate touches.
  • Avoid talking unnecessarily about war or other acts of violence in a young child's presence. Unnecessary exposure to televised coverage of these events can also be harmful. Why give a child an overdose of information that will very likely promote anxiety?
  • As appropriate to your child's developmental level, feel free to share your personal viewpoints about the war or other situation. It is important that you are able to deal with your own feelings, since children deal with the situation as well as their parents feel about it. Be honest and realistic. Strive to find a balance between helping Remain calm and in control. Children react strongly to the feelings of parents, caregivers, and teachers. Even young children pick up on adult uncertainty, helplessness, sadness, and anger. Parents cannot hide their feelings, but they can rise to the occasion and exercise their inner strength and courage. Children depend on their parents for stability in times of uncertainty.

Source: Quick, S. Ph.D., Gnatuk, Ed.D., Lesueur, A. America At War: Helping Children Cope. University of Kentucky