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Henderson: Helping children cope with stress of terrorism starts with openness

photo of commentary on how to help children cope with stress
Lorrie Henderson, above, is president and CEO of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Arizona. (File Photos/DigitalFreePress)
By Lorrie Henderson | Point of View

Between the 24-hour news cycle and social media, kids today have more access to news and information than any generation previously.

This is especially notable during times of war and terrorism like what we have witnessed in Israel the past few days. It is undoubtedly challenging and complex to discuss these issues with your children, and it is important to approach these subjects with care.

Children may have many of the same reactions to trauma as adults, including moodiness, loss of appetite, sensitivity to environmental factors like sirens or loud noises, and even physical symptoms such as headaches and nausea.

Additionally, children may fixate on death, become fearful for their own safety, or lose interest in school or social activities.

Children are incredibly perceptive and tend to absorb cues from the adults in their lives. Thus, it is crucial to address sensitive topics like this in a manner and tone that is suitable for their age. Creating a safe and open space for your children to express their concerns, ask questions, and voice their fears is of utmost importance. You do not need to have all the answers because the information about the situation is constantly evolving.

What matters most is that your children know they can turn to you for support.

Here are some recommendations for engaging in these difficult conversations:

  • Highlight Acts of Kindness: Children need to witness examples of people helping one another during difficult times. Find news stories or instances that display acts of kindness and courage, where individuals are making a positive impact. Ask your child if they would like to contribute in some way to help those affected by the conflict. Seek family-friendly volunteer opportunities that demonstrate how their actions can make a difference.
  • Encourage Compassion: While you might hold strong opinions about the situation, it is important to put aside your personal feelings when discussing it with your children. Instead of focusing on “bad people” or “evil acts,” emphasize the importance of compassion and understanding for the families forced to flee their homes. Ensure that the information you share is accurate and age-appropriate for your child and reassure them of their safety.
  • Address Conflicting Information: Your children might hear different perspectives or opinions from their peers or at school. Make it clear that bullying or being bullied is not acceptable and that they should promptly inform you or another trusted adult if they ever encounter situations that make them uncomfortable.
  • End with a Question: As you conclude your conversation, ensure that your child does not feel anxious or distressed. Ask a few more questions about their feelings and inquire if there is anything else they want to know. Pay attention to their body language and any signs that might indicate their unease. Remind them that you are always there to listen and support them.
  • Device-Free Time: In the digital age, it is virtually impossible to shield children from news about global events. However, you can establish device-free periods for your family, limiting exposure to news and social media. This also applies to adults, as taking a break from constant information bombardment can offer some relief.

Remember to respond to your children’s curiosity and anxiety appropriately, validating their emotions and letting them know that you share their concerns. Encourage open communication and assure them that you are available to help and support them, no matter what.

Editor’s Note: Lorrie Henderson, Ph.D., MBA, LCSW is president and CEO of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Arizona.

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