KNOXVILLE — Reassurance, comfort and age-appropriate information are the key elements for parents talking with children about traumas like the recent terrorist attacks on the United States, a University of Tennessee researcher said Thursday.
Dr. Jan Allen, professor of child and family studies in UT’s College of Human Ecology, advised parents to consider the age of their children when deciding what to say and how much news coverage to let their children watch.
“Children are going to know about the events in New York and Washington because of news coverage, but they may not be able to process the information cognitively,” Allen said. “It’s important to comfort them and reassure them that there are a lot of people working to make sure they are safe and that this doesn’t happen again.”
Allen, whose study, “Children and War,” was done in response to the Persian Gulf War, said that parents won’t be able to hide their own feelings about the tragedies from their offspring.
“It’s OK to share your feelings of sorrow or anger. You can’t really hide them from your children anyway,” she said. “But the emotional reactions can be frightening.
“You want to give children permission to talk about their emotions, because if they don’t talk about them, they’ll be dealing with them alone.”
Allen advised against introducing words like “terrorism” and “bombing” to younger children and recommended asking questions to see what the children know. Older children can be given more information and are capable of dealing with violent issues more intellectually and philosophically.
Teachers and parents can expect to see a number of behavioral responses among children, including acting out and withdrawal.
“In situations like this, children look for a way to gain power and control of a situation that is very frightening,” Allen said. “We have to show them it’s all right to feel sad or powerless and help them realize that we’re there to support them.”