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How to Talk to Children about the Threat of Biological Warfare or Terrorist Attack

(FEMA for kids) While FEMA advocates discussing the threat of natural disaster with children, and emphasizing what actions they should take to protect themselves – getting under heavy furniture in the event of an earthquake, for example – it is often much more difficult to talk about the threat of biological warfare or terrorist attack. The following information is provided by Dr. Lennis G. Echterling; from the Department of Psychology at James Madison University, in Virginia.

Any time that a child is motivated enough to ask a question, it is an opportunity for us to take advantage of a teachable moment. If we want to encourage our child to remain curious and if we want to keep the lines of communication open, then we should offer some kind of an answer. We need to keep in mind, however, that when kids ask questions about dangers and risks, they are usually looking for a little bit of two things — understandable information and realistic reassurance. In other words, our answer should address both the intellectual and emotional needs communicated by the question. We shouldn’t overwhelm them with everything we know about the subject. For example, when little kids ask about sex, we shouldn’t inundate them with an entire sex education course. Instead, we offer them what they looking for — and nothing else.

There is now a substantial body of literature documenting the immediate and long-term psychological effects of war-related violence on children. The research has studied both those who have been direct victims of war and terrorism, as well as the indirect victims and even potential victims. Accumulating evidence shows that war experiences can damage the psychosocial development of young children and their expectations regarding their future lives. Being separated from their families, seeing armed combat, having family members injured or killed, and being attacked have left profound and enduring psychological wounds on children. Both male and female adolescents under the extreme threat of war-related violence report high levels of psychological distress.

Many victims of war related-violence develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The lingering and powerful impact of war trauma on adolescents was demonstrated in studies of Cambodian refugees. The overall prevalence rate of PTSD in the Cambodian youth who were refugees in the United States was a startlingly high 38 percent. The diagnosis of PTSD was strongly related to the experience of the war itself.

Here is a sampling of the research that is related to the issue of kids and the threat of war:

Zeidner, M. (1993). Coping with disaster: The case of Israeli adolescents under threat of missile attack. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 22 (1), 89-108.

Sack, W. H., McSharry, S., Clarke, G. N., Kinney, R., Sheeley, J., & Lewinsohn, P. (1994). The Khmer adolescent project: I. Epidemiological findings in two generations of Cambodian refugees. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 182 (7), 387-395.

Sack, W. H., McSharry, S., Clarke, G. N., Kinney, R., Sheeley, J., & Lewinsohn, P. (1995). The Khmer adolescent project: II. Functional capacities in two generations of Cambodian refugees. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 183 (3), 177-181.

Kuterovac, G., Dyregrov, A., & Stuvland, R. (1994). Children in war: A silent majority under stress. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 67(4), 363-375.

Hobfoll, S. E., Spielberger, C. D., Breznitz, S., Figley, C., Folkman, S., Lepper-Green, B., Merchenbaum, D., Milgram, N. A., Sandler, I., Sarason, I., & Van der Kolk, B. (1991). War- related stress. American Psychologist, 46 (8), 848-855.

Dr. Echterling can be reached at


September 26, 2007 - Posted by | Blogroll, Homeland security, news, personal, politics, random, religion, Terrorism, Terrorism In The U.S., Terrorism News, Uncategorized, War-On-Terror

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