Talking With Your Kids About a Disaster/War – Advice for Concerned Parents            9-11-01

By Sara


A seven-year-old asked her mother, “Why aren’t they using their words?”  In another home, an eleven-year-old asked, “Why are they killing innocent people?”  As caring parents, we prepare to talk to our kids about many subjects, but it’s painfully difficult to talk to our children about events like we’ve just witnessed in the United States.

 Given the easy access to media, it is nearly impossible to protect our kids from frightening and confusing world events, especially when it hits so close to home.  If children watched the news today, they may have seen such graphic images as buildings crumbling before their eyes, people bleeding and injured from the attack, or fires burning into the night.  If children didn’t see television, it is likely that their friends did and will be talking about it in great detail.

 What we say to our children depends on their age, the questions they ask and our own political or moral beliefs.  Whatever we feel about what has happened, we want to encourage children to be curious, to value peaceful resolutions to problems and to feel free to come to us with questions and concerns.

 Of course parents will have to take into account many different circumstances when dealing with this topic.  The child’s age, the impact on your immediate family, the exposure to media, and individual differences will all need to be carefully considered.  The following tips are offered as a general guideline. 

 Provide Honest Communication

Research has shown us that children filter their reactions to trauma through their parents.  The level of children’s emotional disturbances correlate closely with the amount of distress that parents display.  Child Development Specialist Helen Danielson says that children and teens have “radar.”  They know when adults are afraid and are not telling the truth.  Commonly adults tell children “not to worry” and yet show plenty of signs of worry themselves.  This simply makes kids worry more and display their worries in other ways.  Adults must take additional time to talk openly, honestly and often. 

 ·        Try to find out what your children already know about the attack and how they found out about it.

·        Validate their child’s perspective; never criticize, but always honor their feelings.  By listening and hearing the children’s stories, you can get to the source of the fear and provide comfort.

·        Let them know you understand what is happening is confusing and complicated.

·        Let them know you’re glad to be talking to them about it.  Share your opinions and feelings about the attack, whatever they are.  Allow your children to express their own opinions.

·        Ask your children if they are worried and/or frightened.  Even if they say, “No,” you are giving them permission to have those feelings and to talk about them if they choose.

·        Explain to children that what’s happening is real.  Unlike violent movies, television programs, cartoons or video games, real people are dying and being horribly hurt.  Expressing our own feelings of grief and horror about what happens in a war is a good way to help children learn compassion and empathy.

·        However we feel about the terrorists, our children should know that their classmates of other nationalities or origin are not bad people.  This is a good opportunity to debunk stereotyping.


Maintain a Regular Routine

Children and teens find security in a consistent routine.  Although this is a very difficult time for everyone, maintain normal routines for eating, sleeping and play.  Research has shown that behavioral problems increase when schedules are inconsistent and disruptive.  If, for example, your child’s regular routine is to be in bed by 9:00 p.m., but now the bedtime has been extended so they can view the 10:00 news reports, the routine has been disrupted.  Make every attempt to return your child to his or her regular bedtime routine.

 Regularly scheduled television programs which are interrupted for war reports or news updates, may disrupt your child’s routine.  Because television brings this breaking news into our homes, adults must closely monitor viewing.  Turn the television off to protect young children from hearing and seeing the violence.  Their inability to distinguish fantasy from reality could intensify fears.  And because of their limited experiences, older children may not have developed mature judgment to interpret what they see.


Develop Your Child’s Sense of Control

It is important to build your child’s sense of security by helping them to achieve a sense of control.  When children or teens feel out of control, they may show some of the following symptoms of stress or anxiety:

            Among preschool or kindergarten children

·        Clinging to people or a favorite toy, blanket, etc.

·        Unexplained crying or tearfulness

·        Change in relationships with same-age friends

·        Choosing adults over same-age friends

·        Increased acts of violence toward people or things

·        Unable to speak, eat or play normally

·        Regression to an earlier stage of development

·        Sleep difficulties (nightmares, sleep talking, bed wetting

Among school-age children

·        Any of the above signs

·        Complaints about stomach aches, headaches or other illnesses when nothing seems to be wrong

·        Increased irritableness or crabbiness

·        Increased problems with school, including a drop in grades, unwillingness to go to school, odd complaints about teachers or school

·        Behavior changes

Among adolescents

·        Any of the above signs

·        Aggressive behavior (getting into a lot of trouble at school, at home, or with the law)

·        Low self-esteem and increased self-criticism (blaming themselves for a situation)

·        Misdirected anger (lots of anger over small events)

·        Loss of interest in usual hobbies or activities.


We can help our children develop a sense of control by involving them in creative expression of fear through puppets, art, music, drama, speeches, debates and storytelling.  Children or teens can write letters, create journals, develop class projects that promote patriotism, or learn more about helping organizations such as the Red Cross.  As parents we can encourage their concern and compassion. 

  Your own community may offer resources for you to provide and give support to others.  Family Resource Centers, school counselors, support groups, faith communities, university extension services and counseling centers are all good places to start.   

  It is important that children and teens, as well as adults, be able to find hope for the future.  We can openly express that no one knows what the future will hold, but when we work together we have every reason to believe that life is worth living and things will work out even during war or disaster.