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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Is My Daddy Going to War? Helping Kids Cope With Tough Questions

LAS CRUCES -- Talking honestly with children about their fears, such as parents being sent to war, is the best way to help them cope in the aftermath of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, a New Mexico State University child development specialist said.

"Parents must encourage their children to talk about their feelings," said Diana DelCampo with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "This helps kids deal with difficult issues and gives them the ability to cope and deal with sadness and fear or anxiety."

Because New Mexico is home to four military bases, children may be worried about family members or friends in the military.

"A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that talking isn't going to do any good, that it won't change the fact that a loved one is having to leave for military duty," DelCampo said. "It won't change facts, but it will help kids cope with the facts."

School-aged children and teens may be the most affected, because they understand enough to be concerned, but do not have the maturity to work through the anxiety on their own, DelCampo said.

She said talking about things that cause anxiety can be comforting for kids as well as adults. "We have to talk about what bothers us, otherwise all those feelings stay inside and we become a pressure cooker. Sooner or later, you explode."

She said most children will have to be prompted to talk about what is bothering them. "Don't make the mistake of thinking just because they don't say anything, that everything is all right with them, or that they don't care," DelCampo said. "You have to give them a little push, say something to get them to talk to you."

Talking to children about serious issues that have upset them is an ongoing process. "It's not a one-shot deal," DelCampo said. "Once you talk about something that is bothering a child, whether it's about a loved one in the military or someone dying, it's not over. You have to revisit these issues every now and then."

DelCampo said parents sometimes worry about what to say to a child. She recommends practicing with another adult or reading materials that address this problem. One source is the home page for NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics at www.cahe.nmsu.edu. The World Wide Web site has parent resources, including links to publications and other information.

DelCampo said another good source of information is books.

"There are all kinds of books that talk about what you can say to children about serious issues. If you don't have time to read a long book, look for a children's book. You can get good ideas from those," she said.

DelCampo said above all, children need reassurance. "Kids just want to hear you say, 'It's all right, we'll get through this. I'm here for you.' and sometimes just a hug or a kind touch will reassure them."

Parents can help children work through difficult issues by comforting them, prompting them to keep talking and reassuring them.