Parents: This could happen to you

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You’re home with your children, watching television, when suddenly a news bulletin flashes on the screen. It includes information and perhaps images of violence, death and destruction. What do you say to your children? Do you try to explain the political factors? Or do you just sit quietly and let them come to their own conclusions?

“That would be a good time to ask your child, ‘How do you feel?'” according to Kathleen A. Brehony, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of “After the Darkest Hour: How Suffering Begins the Journey to Wisdom.” “But there are individual differences in children, and I would eschew a one-size-fits-all answer. It would be most important for parents consider the age of their child and what he or she can handle.”

Parents already faced this situation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 Attack on America. And with war declared on terrorists and President Bush’s statements that the war could be lengthy, it is highly likely that we all could be faced again and again with this scenario.

Brehony said parents should listen to what their children are asking about what they have seen and heard. It’s important to give children encouragement and the opportunity to express their feelings, she said.

Twelve-year-old Katie Dahl of Gwinnett County, Ga., expressed her feelings about the attack in an unexpected way. Before the attack occurred, she was already pondering an entry in a school poetry contest. The assignment was to write verse that completed the statement, “In my hands I hold …”

“Her answer to that, because of current events, was freedom,” said her mother, Rhondi Dahl. “She literally started writing it before school one morning and it was flowing out as fast as she could write because it was coming from the heart.”

“I was surprised and shocked,” said Katie, a seventh grader at Pinckneyville Middle School in Norcross/Atlanta, Ga. “I never expected something like this to happen to America. I wanted to somehow help out for the cause and thought a poem would be a good way to express my condolences.

“At first, I was writing the poem just to have an entry to turn in for the contest, but then I realized I was writing it for my sake and I felt so much better once I put my feelings down on paper,” Katie added.

According to Brehony, it’s no surprise that expressing her feelings that way helped Katie.

“Certainly it’s good for people to have opportunities to express the way they’re feeling, and it’s particularly good to give children that opportunity,” she said.

Parents should use their own judgment in deciding how to respond to each child’s reactions to such events as they occur in the future.

“There’s a really fine line between scaring them and saying that we’re all right, there’s nothing wrong,” Brehony said. But she said parents should keep in mind that children are very perceptive about their parents’ feelings, much more so than many parents believe.

“It’s not the responsibility of the kids to assume the emotions of their parents,” she said. “If you’re a parent who is out camping, you don’t want to be the one that the kids are trying to keep calm and protect when you hear something.”

Likewise, in times of crisis, parents should try not to put their children in a position of having to comfort them, Brehony said.

But in the aftermath, give children the chance to ask questions, or otherwise express their emotions about the events they have just seen. If that expression is suppressed, Brehony said the result could be some of the same symptoms that are seen in children who have experienced other types of emotional trauma. Those symptoms include acting out in school, dropping grades, withdrawing socially and nightmares.

Parents, take the time to listen to your children if and when they are exposed to more terrifying images of war and violence. Be ready to respond in an age-appropriate manner to their questions. And it wouldn’t hurt to have a notebook or a sketch pad at hand.

Like any traumatic situation, children (and adults) can handle war images better if given a chance to express the feelings they elicit. When your child starts talking about or asking questions about war, recognize that it is a time to stop your busy schedule and take a few quality minutes for interaction.

I Hold In My Hand. . . Freedom!”

Mr. Tom Mitsoff is a daily newspaper editor and syndicated editorial columnist. His web address is http://www.tommitsoff.com.

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