Watch News Together
For older children, whose exposure to media images parents likely have limited control over, developmental specialists recommend sitting down and watching the news together and then discussing what's happening and what it means. "It's better that kids hear about things [related to the war and terrorism] with us, so we can pave the way for them to talk about it," Levin says.
And it's from those trusted people that children take their cues. Aside from graphic media images, parental behavior-- like crying, excessive talking about war or obsessing over the news—is a key factor that affects how children, even infants, react, says Dr. Samuel Kelley, medical director for the MSPCC.
Young children who are unable to verbally express what is troubling them may watch their parents and then act out their own fears by crying, changing their eating/sleeping patterns or by being excessively clingy, Dr. Kelley says. "They don't have the coping mechanisms that adults do," he says.
Though there's no proscribed script for parents to use when tackling this issue, Dr. Fassler says one thing parents should never do is lie. "If you lie, kids usually, eventually find out and that makes it harder for them to trust you in the future," he says.
While Levin agrees that being truthful is important, she adds, "One only gives them the truth that they need." For example, if a child asks if people can get hurt in war, a parent can respond very simply by saying, "Yes, when there's war, people do get hurt," Levin says, but not elaborate with details. What young children are really driving at with their questions, she said, is whether they and their families are safe.
Dr. Kelley says parents should repeatedly remind children that they are secure at home and at school and to reinforce feelings of safety by sticking to a routine and maintaining a sense of calm at home. "Reassure them that they're safe," he says.
If children ask pointed questions, address them, but then don't let them dwell on the anxiety, Dr. Kelley says. "Bring out toys and redirect them. Draw a picture," he says.
How do grownups explain the seemingly contradictory message children are sent about not hitting or getting violent with one another when they see soldiers going off to war? Dr. Kelley says parents should explain that this is a dispute between countries and that it's being handled differently in order to protect them. "Tell them that the government is doing that to keep them safe," he says.
Dr. Fassler offers this potential parental answer: "Sometimes countries can't find other ways to solve problems. I can only hope that it will be over quickly because war is never a good thing."