During Wartimes, Talk To Your Kids

Q: What is the best way to talk to children about difficult matters that appear in the media?

A: Parents often worry about how to talk to their children about traumatic events. Based on our work at Children's Hospital Boston in response to the Gulf War and the September 11 attacks on the United States, we have identified a set of communication principles for families.

First, choose events your children witness on television, talk about in school, or experience at home because these will be on their minds. Then pick a time when and a place where both you and your children feel comfortable. It helps to plan and rehearse what you will say. Your aim is to explain to your children what has happened, what the response will be, and how you feel about the event.

After September 11, children found it reassuring for parents to point out the actions of those trying to help the victims, especially those of firefighters, police, and medical workers. This gave the children hope because even in difficult times, people were taking positive actions. Parents often found it helpful to tell children that everyone, including themselves, gets frightened sometimes.

We recommend you limit children's television time to one-half hour or an hour per day and restrict their exposure to media portrayals of traumatic events. By monitoring what your children watch and listen to, you can talk things over immediately and reassure your children.

These times challenge us all. We will get through them by drawing on our religious or spiritual faith, our families, and our ideals of democracy, justice, and equality. We will also be better off if we talk openly to our children.

William Beardslee, MD, is chairman of the department of psychiatry at Children's Hospital Boston and the author of Out of the Darkened Room (Little, Brown and Co., 2002).