For most Americans, 9/11 ushered in a new era, upending our long-held view that being on American soil was synonymous with safety.
Since that loss of innocence in 2001, the unthinkable has occurred too many times to count: Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, the Boston Marathon bombings, an Orlando nightclub.
But violence doesn’t have to happen in one’s own backyard to provoke feelings of uneasiness or anxiety. In the past month alone, worldwide 24/7 media presented terrifying images of the Manchester concert bombing, vehicular attacks at the London Bridge and at a nearby mosque, a bludgeoning at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and a suicide car bombing near the Champs Elysées.
To child psychologists, the impacts on young people surrounded by TVs, computers and mobile devices are only beginning to be understood.
“Our children are inundated with images on the internet and on television to the point that fear is the constant,” says Dr. Howard Osofsky, professor and chair of psychiatry at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine. “And, younger children may have difficulty telling the difference between the continual reporting and reality, and may mistakenly think the event is actually occurring over and over again.”
Experts tell us that fear is an understandable response to horrific events. But wise caretakers don't let it stop there: Osofsky believes that discussions about the events can have a calming effect.
“It’s important that we step up and begin a dialogue about these issues. You can start out by asking your children what they know or have heard, which gives you the opportunity to correct any false information, or fill in the missing gaps. Younger children should be encouraged to draw or play out their feelings in a way that’s most comfortable for them. This gives parents an opportunity to give reassurance.”
Osofsky and his wife, Dr. Joy Osofsky, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, also at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine, have been working with colleagues around the world since the mass shooting at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999 to develop strategies that will help communities recover from terrorism and violence.
Their department has now established the Terrorism and Disaster Center for Child and Family Resilience as a resource for families.
“It’s important for families to have conversations in these difficult times,” notes Joy Osofsky. “It’s much scarier for children to be in the dark about terrifying events than it is for them to share their feelings in an understanding and comforting environment.”
It’s important to look for the signs and symptoms of stress in your children, who may be internalizing what they perceive as threatening, the doctors said.
“Young children who are feeling uneasy have a tendency to regress and exhibit clingier behavior. They may insist that they sleep with the light on, or even suddenly begin wetting the bed,” said Howard Osofsky. “And for adolescents, a sudden shift to high-risk behavior, like the use of dangerous drugs, can be an attempt to escape the realities of life.”
Such events can provide a useful forum to start a conversation about the underlying causes of violence, Howard Osofsky added.
“It’s a time when a parent or family member can discuss with their older children the need to avoid stereotyping, to explain how prejudice comes about, and most importantly to promote a world in which tolerance is a key element.”
"The purpose of terrorism is never the absolute numbers of people they may kill," Howard Osofksy said. "It is an insidious desire to make people fearful and anxious, and to disrupt free societies around the world.
"We are an inherently resilient society, and if you just watch those people coming together for that concert in Manchester, just a week after the bombing there, it was a complete show of strength.”
If your child has been a victim of violence, a disaster or is being affected by the ongoing news of terror and violence here and abroad, there are resources for additional help and counseling.
- Terrorism and Disaster Center for Child and Family Resilience, (504) 568-6004
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network, NCTSN.org