Monday, January 03, 2005

Kids and War Anxiety: What Can Parents Do?

By: Dwight Bain, Nationally Certified Counselor and Life Coach

In the midst of a war situation, many parents are wondering what can be done to protect their kids from additional stress and anxiety. Here are some helpful steps to make sure that your son or daughter is safe.

Watch for the warning signs of anxiety.

Here are some of the symptoms and behaviors that may indicate your child has been overexposed to the traumatic emotions that follow a crisis situation. Remember that your main goal is to protect the child and not minimize or deny their emotional symptoms. The more symptoms present, the greater the need for the child to receive additional support and care from family, clergy, or a counseling or medical professional.

- Major changes in energy level, especially lethargy or helplessness
- Heightened fear and worry about the war, or being bombed or attacked
- Changes in sleep patterns, especially nightmares or night terrors
- Regressive behavior, (e.g. "baby talk", clingy to parents or bedwetting)
- Preoccupation with loss of parents or being stranded without parents
- Major shift in school performance, aggression, withdrawal or apathy
- Angry explosions or depressive moodiness
- Withdrawal from normal activities at home, church or school
- Avoidance of friends, family or pets by going into an emotional "cocoon"

Any of the above symptoms are normal reactions to a crisis and may not indicate a need for professional counseling, however it is important to watch for major changes in your child's attitude, personality or behavior to know how to help them cope. Here are some action steps that you can begin to use to reduce pressure on your children and keep them emotionally and physically safe.


What can parents do to lessen the impact of war anxiety?

Here are some positive action steps that you can take to help your child avoid the negative impacts of anxiety over the war with Iraq.

Take care of yourself
Since children draw much of their security from their parents, it is important to keep yourself well grounded and supported. Spend more time with healthy family, friends or church members during this time to make sure that you aren't overly anxious and subtly passing that anxiety along to your children. Just like the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling of the plane and the flight attendants instruct parents to put their masks on first, you have to stay as balanced as possible to effectively care for your child during this stressful time.

Be aware and be available
This is a time for extra precautions, but not extra fear. Notice your surroundings, and if the child is old enough, you can talk about the importance of being safe by locking doors, or looking up and noticing cars in parking lots that may be backing out, (as opposed to running through parking lots like children have a tendency to do). Pay more attention to being available for your child, to talk, pray or play. As you heighten your level of involvement and support, your child will be less likely to feel afraid.

Watch your talk
It is recommended that you never discuss your greatest fears with your children, but rather use discernment in discussing your opinions about the war on the telephone or with your friends or coworkers if your child could overhear the conversation. Wisdom requires you to guard your tongue around children during this difficult time to protect them from being overly worried or afraid. It is okay to discuss the facts of the war with older children, but then move into a discussion of how we should pray for our troops, and how we are safe here in this country. Talk is one of the best ways to help a child feel secure, so ask questions and then just listen to allow your child a chance to release their fears in a safe way.

Monitor media and guard images
Television images are extremely powerful and vivid in a child's mind. With this in mind, you should take great care to avoid having the television on 24/7, but rather limit the exposure to media images. If you feel like you do have to have the set on, (which is not recommended), then turn the sound off. Talk about the positives of your family being together, or an answered prayer, instead of focusing on the negative elements of war. Guide your children into working on the elements of what is happening in their world, as opposed to events on the other side of the world. Protecting your child from harsh media images will protect them from having to struggle to get those images out of their head in the future.

Routine, schedule and rules
Children draw security from a predictable schedule. Build a regular set of morning and evening rituals, like getting ready for school or bedtime stories or prayer time; also pay attention to include meal time and personal hygiene rituals that are age appropriate for your child. Even little guys and gals can help to take their plate from the table to the kitchen counter, or take more ownership of their daily rituals. This actually takes stress off of Mom and Dad as the child grows in independence through the years, but it is even more helpful for the child to feel the sense of empowerment from knowing what do to as they begin and end their day. The rules are always the rules, even if there is a war, so be consistent with your family boundaries to help everyone feel more secure by not allowing chaos to erupt from neglecting the established rules for household behavior.

Reconnect to family, friends and faith
This is an excellent time to reach out to spend more time with friends or family members. If you don't have family nearby, connect with a local church that has activities for you and your child. The additional socialization will help to build a sense of security from having others to go through this experience with, as well as allow every member of your family to be more aware of God's love and protection. As a suggestion, read Bible verses on finding comfort during difficult times, like this one in Psalm 91: 9-10: "If you make the most High your dwelling-even the Lord, who is my refuge-then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways." The Bible has hundreds of reassuring promises of peace and comfort during fearful times. Now is a perfect time to search out those verses and teach your children the importance of a personal faith to face the challenges of life.

Focus on hope, instead of helplessness
We will make it through this difficult time. As you build these coping skills and life management principles into your home, your children will actually be stronger and less afraid of circumstances because they will be more aware of how to face their anxiety with the assurance of God's protection and peace. Know that you are not alone through this time so keep your radio tuned in for more practical insights on helping you cope during the days ahead.

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