by Kara Gavin
May 22, 2004
It's been a struggle for adults to understand these events, as emotions of disbelief and shame mix with outrage and confusion. But what about children and teens? Depending on their age and how much they've seen or heard, the news and pictures may affect them too - in ways that parents might not predict.
That's why it's crucial for parents to take time now, while the news is still fresh, to talk with their children about what they're feeling, and keep an eye on how much they're seeing and hearing, says a University of Michigan child psychologist.
"For children who view disturbing images and video footage related to the atrocities happening in Iraq, this can be very damaging in an emotional sense, particularly if they don't have an adult to monitor the information they're seeing, to talk with them about what's happening, and to explain the situation at their age level," says Michelle Kees, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the U-M Medical School who specializes in treating children who have experienced traumatic events.
"These images are available virtually everywhere," Kees reminds parents, "and they have a graphic nature which even recent generations haven't seen." From the front page of Internet sites, to the newspapers and magazines at the grocery store, to the television playing in the background, parents can almost assume that their children have seen some of these images. And they may have heard more from schoolyard talk, classroom discussions and overheard adult conversations.
Kees notes that many children won't suffer negative psychological effects from exposure to the recent news, but advises parents to keep an eye out for signs that their child isn't coping well, and to keep communicating as events continue to unfold.
"In understanding how children respond to traumatic events, it's important to keep in mind that some children won't show a response. Some children are very resilient in nature," she says. "Some children are also more shielded from information or are desensitized to these kinds of events. So they see them, they're fine, they keep playing, they keep going on about their normal lives. But other children do definitely show more of a traumatic reaction to observing difficult war images."
"Seeing the images of 'good guys' committing bad acts is very confusing for adults, so obviously it's going to be confusing for our children," says Kees. "We still don't know the full extent of what's happened, and everywhere you look there's blame being placed. So as adults try to understand this, it can also be particularly difficult for children to understand."
Certain children, including those whose parents or relatives are in the military, those of Arab or Muslim heritage, and those who have suffered some major trauma in the past, may be especially prone to negative effects from current news, she adds. If a military parent is stationed overseas, even outside of Iraq, a child may see any troubling news items as threatening to his or her parent.
Kees offers some specific tips for parents in this troubling time:
"What we see in children varies based upon their age," she says. "Most commonly we might see a regression of behavior, so children who had previously achieved a developmental level start sliding backwards. For example, thumb-sucking or bed-wetting reemerges, or we might see more clinging, more anxiety, or more apprehension about being separated from parents." Children may also be sadder, or withdrawn, or lose interest in things they used to enjoy a lot. Or, they may have a more anger-based response, with irritability and crabbiness.
If your child's appetite at mealtimes changes, or their sleep patterns are disturbed, in the days after seeing shocking news, that may be a sign they've been affected. Even nightmares that don't involve specific images or people from the news may be related.
"Nightmares are a classic symptom of post-traumatic stress, and sometimes the content of the dream is not specific to what's distressing the child," Kees says. "But any type of change in previous behavior should be taken seriously by parents."
If you do notice a change, she recommends talking with your child about what's bothering him or her. If your child's behavior changes dramatically or the changes are long-lasting, or if your child has lived through a war-related or terrorism-related loss in the past, he or she may need professional counseling.
In all, Kees says, only time will tell how America's children and teenagers will be affected by recent events. "In my own practice, having talked with children and adolescents who I see, many have passed this off as, 'Oh, something else that happened in Iraq.' As an adult, that's frightening to me because of the significance of these events. But on the other hand, maybe this is an indicator of their resilience and their ability to assimilate even the most difficult of information. I don't think we can full answer that question yet. Time will show how this generation of children will do."
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