The monster under the bed

March 23, 2003|By Rosemary J. Zook

FEAR. IT can save your life or cripple you.

Adults are lucky. They have the experience to deal with fear in a rational way, based on years of knowledge and experience. But children do not have the resources to deal intelligently with their fears, and they need guidance.

So what is the best way to deal with our children's fears in an age of terrorism and war?

The messages we receive from our national leaders can be confusing. In a recent TV ad, first lady Laura Bush told us to tell our children that they are "safe." At the same time, President Bush told us not to relax our vigilance and that there is more to come. And war has been the topic on everyone's lips for the past few months.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also suggests telling children they are safe and that "the violence is isolated to certain areas and they will not be harmed." This suggestion would have little validity for the millions of children living in urban areas. What can we say to children living in New York or Washington? If there's no threat, what's all the extra security about?

Do most children know the real deal? Absolutely. You can see it in their drawings of planes flying into buildings, planes dropping bombs or clouds of chemicals, soldiers in combat and tanks on the move. You can see it in the content of their nightmares, in the clinging behavior of some children and in their play. For adolescents, it may be expressed covertly through substance abuse, sleep disturbance or a decline in school performance.

We do need to reassure children just as we need to reassure ourselves.

But possibly children cannot be coaxed into a sense of security. Try telling a terrified child that the "monster under the bed" does not exist. The monster returns as soon as you leave the room, and the child is left to struggle alone with his or her vivid imagination.

As parents, educators or anyone dealing with children, we need to develop skills in dealing with children's fears about terrorism and war. This is not a monster under the bed, but rather a real, ever-present threat to our safety. Almost all children have witnessed the 9/11 disaster through repeated TV viewings of the event. Now they will have front-row seats on a war.

It's important to remember that young children, especially, do not have the informational resources to assess a situation with any degree of accuracy. So a child's imagination takes over where there are gaps in information. Concepts such as distance, for example, are vague and unsupported by experience. What you tell a child needs to take this into account. Your explanations need to be understandable in the context of that child's actual life experience.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests some guidelines: "It is important to acknowledge the frightening parts of the disaster. ... Falsely minimizing the danger will not end a child's concerns." It is also suggested that parents should admit their concerns, but at the same time stress their ability to cope with the situation.

Children also tend to be emotional barometers of the people around them, chiefly their parents and teachers. An attitude of calmness and competence to deal with situations will likely create a positive effect. If you are worried and panicky, it will be apparent to the child.

It is probably unrealistic to tell children they are safe in today's unsettling world climate. They see and hear what's going on around them, and new messages of potential terror abound, including color codes to tell them the degree of risk. We need to keep communication open to help children reassure themselves that they are protected in a real sense and that you are not going to ignore the "monster under the bed."

Rosemary J. Zook is a psychologist and a free-lance writer. She lives in East Stroudsburg, Pa.

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