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Helping Children Cope in Times of Crisis

By Candy Arrington Most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing the morning of September 11, 2001. Even now, we relive the feelings of shock, disbelief, and panic every time we see footage of the collapsing World Trade Center towers, the flaming Pentagon, or a charred field in Pennsylvania. We recall trying to make sense of events that made no sense, and then, facing the additional crisis of trying to explain and comfort our children while we ourselves were still reeling.

Five years ago, on that September morning, many of our children watched on television at school as events unfolded. Some had full details by the time they saw parents. Others, like my son, only heard rumors. His first words when I saw him were, “I heard someone blew up the White House!”

Unfortunately, even today, terrorist plots are uncovered and attacks continue. Although it may not always strike as close to home, terrorism elicits feelings of fear and uncertainty, especially for children.

Here are some things to remember when talking to children in crisis situations:

  • Remain calm – If you are experiencing panic, get a grip on your own feelings before talking to your children. Don’t frighten them with your emotion. Speak in a normal voice and state facts. Ask children what they understand about the situation, and then dispel rumors and misinformation.
  • Tell the truth – Be honest in telling children what has happened, but don’t overwhelm them with lots of additional details. Don’t project your opinions about what might happen next or where.
  • Give age-appropriate information – A child’s attention span is about the same in minutes as his age. For a seven-year-old, about seven minutes of talking about the incident is enough.
  • Reassure your child – Tell your child something good in addition to telling them the “bad” thing that has happened. Use a map to show your location in relation to the crisis. Tell them in miles how far away it is from where you live.
  • Allow your children to ask questions – Foster open communication by listening patiently, without scoffing. No question is silly. Little minds can conjure some amazing scenarios. Allow children to express what they imagine. Allay fears, if possible, but if you don’t know the answer to a question, say, “I don’t know” rather than making up an answer.
  • Recognize fear – While your child may be very frightened, make sure your words and actions aren’t creating a fearful atmosphere. Understand that your child may have sleep disturbances or be afraid to separate from you. Allow your child to sit in your lap or be near you.
  • Take the focus off the crisis before bedtime – Do something fun. Play a game, read a book, or listen to music, but avoid discussion of the event just before bedtime.
  • Limit continuous television viewing – Young children cannot distinguish between live and replay. Events may seem ongoing. They don’t need to hear excessive news commentary on the crisis.
  • Allow grief - Tell children it’s OK to feel sad. Grieving is a normal response following a crisis situation, however, return to routine activities as soon as possible.
  • Do something to memorialize or instill patriotism – Fly a flag, wear red, white, and blue, or let you child donate some of his allowance to the American Red Cross or other disaster relief agencies.
  • Pray – Pray for your children and with them. Let them pray aloud.
  • Comfort with touch and words – Give lots of hugs and say, “I love you.”      

We’ll never forget September 11, 2001, but we can help children move beyond fear. Each of us feels a renewed sense of the blessings of family and freedom when we see acts of terrorism carried out around the world. Live each day fully, trusting God for protection and peace.

Candy Arrington is a Spartanburg, SC-based freelance writer whose publishing credits include: Marriage Partnership, Today’s Christian, Focus on the Family, Discipleship Journal, The Upper Room, Christian Home & School, Encounter, The War Cry, The Lookout, Christian Communicator, Advanced Christian Writer, and Writer’s Digest. She is coauthor of AFTERSHOCK: Help, Hope, and Healing in the Wake of Suicide (Broadman & Holman Publishers) and is a contributor to numerous anthologies including Chicken Soup for the Soul – Healthy Living: Diabetes. Candy is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and is on faculty for the 2006 Glorieta Christian Writers Conference.


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