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Harold KoplewiczBack to OpinionHarold Koplewicz

How can we help our kids feel safe in unsafe times?

Last week, when news broke about the Times Square bomber, I was traveling between New York and Florida. Perhaps because I was in airports, I found myself thinking more than usual about fear and anxiety in post-9/11 America. When Faisal Shahzad’s face and Nissan Pathfinder appeared on major news networks, my wife and I had just arrived down south to visit my mother-in-law, who is battling cancer. Under the circumstances, I knew our trip wouldn’t be stress-free, but we couldn’t have anticipated that our travel plans would coincide with Shahzad’s arrest.

We overheard in the Palm Beach and LaGuardia terminals a number of conversations among children and parents, many of whom were nervous about boarding their planes. We watched as both adult and child travelers glanced up at gate-side TVs and listened to the voices of CNN reporters; images of Times Square and the bomb-laden SUV flashed across the screen. Our nation’s terror alert level, reporters announced, was now the color orange: the color du jour, you might say, in today’s U.S. airports.

As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I’m often called upon to advise parents on how to help their children feel safe when the news reminds us that we’re living in unsafe times. Children are especially vulnerable, largely because they’ve not yet learned the skills to cope with fear and other stressors. They look to their parents for reassurance, but it remains an enormous challenge to make our children feel safe when we as adults are anxious about events in the news, as well as the private challenges that disrupt our day-to-day lives.

Healthy adults learn to manage fear and anxiety, but as someone who has spent a lifetime helping patients manage stress, I can tell you that even the healthiest adults are vulnerable to extreme stress and fear. On my trip to Florida, for example, while Times Square was being evacuated, I was preoccupied with thoughts of my mother-in-law’s cancer and its impact on my family. How would we deal in the weeks and months ahead with the unpredictable challenges of her illness? We’ve developed better treatments for cancer, but we’ve certainly no cures.

Something similar might be said for our ability to “fight back” against terrorism and safeguard our children. We have in our country more security systems in place than ever before — according to The New York Times, we have 82 surveillance cameras between 34th and 56th Streets and Sixth and Eighth Avenues in Manhattan — but we can’t control everything in our surroundings.

So it’s important that we learn how to manage anxieties about unexpected dangers. Instead of filling our heads with worries about potential threats and tragic outcomes, we must focus on developing for ourselves, and teaching our children, the skill set that will enable us to overcome not only potentially traumatic situations, but also everyday pressures at home. We have to take care of ourselves in order to take care of our kids. How appropriate that the stewardess reminds us to put the air mask on ourselves first and then our children.

Here are some steps you can take to start helping your kids feel safe and respond to frightening news:

  • Children absorb the attitudes and emotions of their parents, so be aware of your reactions and words.
  • Young children should have limited exposure to news coverage that could induce fear and worry. Research has shown that young children may experience heightened anxiety when repeatedly exposed to news coverage of a disaster. If your kids are old enough to watch news coverage and form opinions about the violence reported on TV, discourage them from having a “they” against “us” attitude toward the cultures and countries from which violent offenders come. You don’t want their fears to develop into prejudice.
  • While you should impress upon your kids the extremely low odds of them or your family being affected by a disaster or act of terror, don’t offer false assurances. Don’t say, for instance, “This could never happen to us.”  Remind them, instead, that the media gets invigorated by shocking stories, and that the barrage of coverage of a single event can make the threat of terror or disaster feel more urgent than it really is.
  • Adjust how you discuss traumatic events to the age of your child. Kids understand terrorism and other disasters in relation to their own lives, and younger children are more likely to confuse facts with their fears and fantasies. Emphasize the importance of optimism and resilience, and share stories of human strength and love in times of great upheaval.

Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D., 
is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, founding president of The Child Study Center Foundation, a new organization dedicated to transforming mental health care for the world’s children, and director of the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research.