Raising Kids in Times of Terror - Kimberly Thompson

My youngest son was 4 years old when the planes hit the Twin Towers. While I was in class, my mom was channel-surfing for cartoons for him to watch. The two of them came across news reports of the first plane hitting … and then unfortunately were watching when the second plane hit live. I found out about it from a phone call when I was walking to my car after class. Like all Americans in those dark days, our family was in shock. After those initial horrifying moments, we watched the news obsessively all day. We were desperately trying to understand what was happening and what we needed to do about it. Quite honestly, we weren’t fully aware of how much our 4 year old understood.

When his dad arrived home from work, my son gave him a remarkably accurate narrative of the events of the day. “Dad, planes flew into the World Trade Center, and they were on fire, and firemen went in, and the buildings fell down, and lots of fireman and p’licemen were hurt.” Fortunately there was not a lot of human gore available on TV, because we were astonished at all he had absorbed and how accurately he recalled it.

He also had no comprehension of how far New York City is from West Texas. We lived in the flight path of Abilene Regional Airport, which had never been a problem before. However, after 9-11, he couldn’t go to sleep in his second-floor bedroom without the curtains being drawn. When the planes began their landing descent over our house, he could see the landing lights and was terrified.

So we have heard in the last couple of days of yet another large-scale terrorist attack inside the U.S., this time in Orlando, Florida in a nightclub. This comes of the heels of terrorism in Brussels, Paris, and even a smaller-scale attack in San Bernardino, California. How do parents handle this? Ban television and other media altogether? Go ahead and expose them whenever to whatever? Filter it according to age and maturity?

I’ll admit I don’t have all the answers — or even very many of the answers. But I do have a few ideas for you to think about, from my own experience as well as the wisdom of others.

1. Look for the helpers. This is what Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fame) used to say. He said that his mother used to tell him this when they were watching newsreels of frightening events at the movies (back before television!). It still sounds like good advice to me. Looking for the helpers (the “p’licemen”, the firefighters, the paramedics, etc.) reminds us that even in the midst of horrors, there are always people who are good, kind, and courageous.

2. Exposure but not overexposure. I think it is understandable that everybody was glued to the television sets on 9-11, but allowing kids to watch 24/7 coverage of disasters is overload. Remember that even if they are just playing in the back corner of the room, they are aware of what’s on TV. Also, as media becomes more graphic, it is important to protect them from seeing gore and bodies. It is also important to protect them from graphic descriptions of death and dismemberment. Everybody can have secondary traumatization, in which we develop symptoms of trauma from hearing about death and destruction. This includes kids. That said, if it’s something that everybody is going to know about, then you want to lay the groundwork for a basic understanding of events (kind of like sex – you don’t want them getting a distorted account from peers). With the internet, services such as Primetime Anytime, and DVRs, you should be able to satisfy your own need for news when the kids are outdoors or napping.

3. Provide reassurance. When my son was freaked out by the planes flying over our house, it was a simple thing to close the curtains and he was OK. Another thing I did was to show him a map of the United States, and measured from our house to PawPaw’s house, and then measured from our house to New York City. We talked about the fact that it took almost all day to drive to PawPaw’s house, and that it would take much longer to drive to New York City — what had happened on the TV really was very far away. Turns out that my particular 4 year old really did have the spatial abilities to understand that approach. Or maybe using that approach helped him to develop them.

If your child is naturally high-strung or anxious and begins to focus on terrorism as a major fear, then seek some professional guidance on teaching him to relax and to turn his mind from his fears. Anxiety usually is inherited from somebody, so you may need some guidance in this area as well. However, give him a few days after a major event before jumping to the conclusion that he has an anxiety problem with it. It is going to take us all awhile to adjust after something terrible happens. We all need time. Heaven knows I do.