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Terrorism and its Effect on Children - 2001-09-16

On Tuesday, New York and Washington D.C. suffered terrorist attacks. How do children usually deal with such crises, not only in this country but also around the world? What is the most vulnerable age? And what should the adults around them do to help?

VOA's Penelope Poulou spoke with Taramjit Joshi, chairman of the department of Psychiatry at Children's National Medical Center in Washington D.C. about the effect such acts of aggression have on children.

Poulou: Doctor, we are dealing with victims of psychological terror. And among them are children. How do children usually deal with such crises, not only in this country but also around the world?

Joshi: There is no doubt that this is really a catastrophe and a frightening experience not only for children but adults alike. And so it is really important for all of us to acknowledge the frightening aspects of this, of a situation like this. Children's reactions really depend on several factors, one of which is the age of the child.

Poulou: What is the most vulnerable age?

Joshi: The younger the children and the more exposed to such traumatic responses make them more vulnerable. For example, a six-year-old may show his worries or his fears by refusing to want to go to school. On the other hand, a teenager may either minimize his or her concern may become more argumentative and more irritable and many others actually are able to talk about what they are experiencing.

Poulou: How should adults handle such a crisis? I mean when we speak of adults, of course, we speak of parents, experts, etc.

Joshi: Yes. Children look up to the grownups around them and see how the grownups around them are responding to such an event. So, what happens is that they are trying to model after the grownups and even though we are equally upset and horrified by what may have happened, it is important to let our children know to a certain extent how upsetting it is to you as well so we can validate their fears and their anxieties. But at the same time, in a very calm manner trying to find some reassurance and allow the children to express how they are feeling about such an event.

Poulou: When we are dealing with the media today bringing basically the crisis and the war right in our living rooms, of course as we are all glued to the TV these days, we can see every single moment of the disaster. How do we shield our children from this?

Joshi: Viewing and listening to the graphic details over and over and over again is not useful for the kids. And some young children actually either become somewhat desensitized it's too much information for them and then they have a hard time processing such information. So, I am not saying that they shouldn't watch any television, but I think the parents need to monitor what they are watching and be there with them so that there is some dialogue about what the child is feeling and experiencing. Children have an innate sense of how much they can tolerate and too much information then becomes overwhelming for them. And they have ways and mechanisms of turning it off, but often time we have to help our children do that.

Poulou: How would a school approach that, do you think?

Joshi: Many schools are having debriefing sessions and many mental health professionals and other care workers have been going into the schools talking to the student body, going into a particular classroom for two different things. One, is to give them some ideas of what to expect in terms of reactions from children but at the same time also, to give an opportunity for the kids in a group setting to talk about their fears and their worries. And it is extremely helpful for children to do this in a group setting because then they can support each other and this is very useful. Children are children all over the world and in terms of their reactions you will see young children whether they are in a war situation in a foreign country or the American children would respond by clinging to their parents, by having bad dreams, nightmares, trouble concentrating. So, that doesn't change. You know the reaction. We are all human beings and children are children all over the world. And so, the reaction is the same, the cause of what may have happened may be different. It could be a war, it could be a natural disaster, it could be a terrorist act as it was in this case. But the reaction of children would be the same across the world.

Poulou: Thank you very much.

Joshi: You are very welcome.