FEMA Offers Advice On How To Talk To Children About Terrorist Attacks

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Release date: 
September 12, 2001
Release Number: 
HQ-01-099

Washington, DC -- The terrorist events in New York and Washington, D.C., have not spared the children of the nation, said Joe M. Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They have seen the terrible television pictures and heard the adults in their lives discussing the tragic events. Yet many adults don't know how to talk to children about the disaster, or don't know how to recognize that their children are feeling distress.

FEMA for Kids, the part of the FEMA web site devoted to children, offers advice on how parents can discuss terrorism to their children. The site also includes general guidelines about dealing with disasters' impact on children and an opportunity for schools to submit artwork children have done in an effort to share their feelings. The address for the site is: www.fema.gov/kids.

"Children affected by disasters may suddenly act younger than they are or may appear stoic - not crying or expressing concern," said Holly Harrington, the FEMA for Kids manager. "Parents can help their children by talking to them, keeping them close and even spoiling them for a little while. We also advise that children not be overexposed to the news coverage of the terrorist events."

Talking to children about terrorism can be particularly problematic since providing them with safety guidelines to protect themselves from terrorism is difficult. According to psychologists, questions about terrorism are teaching opportunities. Adults should answer questions about terrorism by providing understandable information and realistic reassurance. And children don't need to be overwhelmed with information, so less is better than more in terms of details.

Children may exhibit these behaviors after a disaster:

  1. Change from being quiet, obedient and caring to loud, noisy and aggressive or may change from being outgoing to shy and afraid.
  2. Develop nighttime fears, have nightmares or bad dreams.
  3. Be afraid the event will reoccur.
  4. Become easily upset, crying and whining.
  5. Lose trust in adults. After all, their adults were not able to control the disaster.
  6. Revert to younger behavior such as bed wetting and thumb sucking.
  7. Not want parents out of their sight and refuse to go to school or childcare.
  8. Have symptoms of illness, such as headaches, vomiting or fever.
  9. Worry about where they and their family will live.

What to do:

  1. Talk with the children about how they are feeling and listen without judgment.
  2. Let the children take their time to figure things out. Don't rush them.
  3. Help them learn to use words that express their feelings, such as happy, sad, angry or mad.
  4. Assure children that you will be there to take care of them. Reassure them often.
  5. Stay together as a family as much as possible.
  6. Let them have some control, such as choosing what outfit to wear or what meal to have for dinner.
  7. Encourage the children to give or send pictures they have drawn or things they have written.
  8. Help children regain faith in the future by helping them develop plans for activities that will take place later - next week, next month.
  9. Allow the children to grieve losses.
Last Updated: 
July 16, 2012 - 18:46
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