Responding to Children’s Emotional Needs During Times of Crisis: Information for Parents

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Pediatricians are often the first
responders for children and families suffering emotional and psychological
reactions to terrorism and other disasters. As such, pediatricians have a unique
opportunity to help parents and other caregivers communicate with children in
ways that allow them to better understand and recover from traumatic events such
as terrorist attacks or other disasters. Pediatricians also can help to
facilitate timely referral to mental health services, as appropriate, for these
children and their families.

Important tips for parents and other caregivers

  • Take care of yourself first. Children
    depend on the adults around them to be and feel safe and secure. If you
    are very anxious or angry, children are likely to be more affected by
    your emotional state than by your words. Find someone you trust to help
    with your personal concerns.

  • Watch for unusual behavior that may
    suggest your child is having difficulty dealing with disturbing events.
    Stress-related symptoms to be aware of include depressed or irritable
    moods; sleep disturbances, including increased sleeping, difficulty
    falling asleep, nightmares or nighttime waking; changes in appetite,
    either increased or decreased; social withdrawal; obsessive play, such
    as repetitively acting out the traumatic event, which interferes with
    normal activities; and hyperactivity that was not previously

  • Talk about the event with your child. To
    not talk about it makes the event even more threatening in your
    child’s mind. Silence suggests that what has occurred is too
    horrible to even speak of.

  • Start by asking what your child has
    already heard about the events and what understanding he or she has
    reached. As your child explains, listen for misinformation,
    misconceptions, and underlying fears or concerns.

  • Explain—as simply and directly as
    possible—the events that occurred. The amount of information that
    will be helpful to a child depends on his or her age. For example, older
    children generally want and will benefit from more detailed information
    than younger children. Because every child is different, take cues from
    your own child as to how much information to provide.

  • Limit television viewing of terrorist
    events or other disasters, especially for younger children. When older
    children watch television, try to watch with them and use the
    opportunity to discuss what is being seen and how it makes you and your
    child feel.

  • Encourage your child to ask questions,
    and answer those questions directly. Like adults, children are better
    able to cope with a crisis if they feel they understand it.
    Question-and-answer exchanges help to ensure ongoing support as your
    child begins to understand the crisis and the response to it.

  • Don’t force the issue with your
    child. Instead, extend multiple invitations for discussion and then
    provide an increased physical and emotional presence as you wait for him
    or her to be ready to accept those invitations.

  • Recognize that your child may appear
    disinterested. In the aftermath of a crisis, younger children may not
    know or understand what has happened or its implications. Older children
    and adolescents, who are used to turning to their peers for advice, may
    initially resist invitations from parents and other caregivers to
    discuss events and their personal reactions. Or, they may simply not
    feel ready to discuss their concerns.

  • Reassure children of the steps that are
    being taken to keep them safe. Terrorist attacks and other disasters
    remind us that we are never com-pletely safe from harm. Now more than
    ever it is important to reassure children that, in reality, they should
    feel safe in their schools, homes, and communities.

  • Consider sharing your feelings about the
    event or crisis with your child. This is an opportunity for you to role
    model how to cope and how to plan for the future. Before you reach out,
    however, be sure that you are able to express a positive or hopeful

  • Help your child to identify concrete
    actions he or she can take to help those affected by recent events.
    Rather than focus on what could have been done to prevent a terrorist
    attack or other disaster, concentrate on what can be done now to help
    those affected by the event.

  • If you have concerns about your
    child’s behavior, contact your child’s pediatrician, other
    primary care provider, or a qualified mental health care specialist for

For additional information, please visit the
American Academy of Pediatrics’ Children, Terrorism & Disasters
Web site at http://www.aap.org/terrorism.