After Terror Attack Like Brussels, Parents Can Play Key Role So Kids Aren't Traumatized, Experts Say

PHOTO: A woman consoles her children at a street memorial following Tuesdays bomb attacks in Brussels on March 23, 2016. PlayVincent Kessler/Reuters
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The deadly attacks in Brussels have produced another wave of frightening headlines, videos of the bombing and new stories about victims injured or killed in the incidents. The effect can be traumatizing for children or adolescents who are trying to make sense of what has happened, but experts said parents can help to ease the shock of confronting such devastating news.

Russell Jones, a professor of psychology at Virginia Tech and a trauma expert, said a key thing to remember is that children will mimic the behavior and attitudes of adults around them.

"First of all parents need to be calm and in control of themselves. Oftentimes, children will model the behavior of parents," Jones explained. "If parents lose it, children will do likewise."

He recommends parents tell children about the events but keep it at a "developmentally appropriate level," since a 15-year-old can handle far more details than a 5-year-old.

"Only give information that child needs and understand," Jones said.

The American Psychological Association advises adults to both limit how much news they're watching and to be careful if their children are the in the room with the news on for long periods of time.

"Try to be particularly sensitive to your children's exposure, and be prepared to answer questions they may have about how or why this traumatic even occurred," the APA advises on its website.

There are also concrete things parents can do to help children cope with frightening events, Jones said, noting that making a plan for the family on what to do in the event of a similar attack will help kids feel less frightened and more in control.

These kinds of events can also cause children to feel destabilized and unsure of their place in the world, Jones said.

"Many times following these unexpected traumatic events, it shatters their world view," Jones explained. "They feel things will never be the same and good things don’t happen to good people."

Parents can point out that the community is there to help them and that "there are moms and dads and police and firefighters in community who are here to help," Jones said.

Parents who want to bring up the terror attacks without frightening children can use subtle prompt questions and let the child lead the conversation, he said.

"You can say things like 'Have any kids talked anything about what’s on TV recently?'" Jones said. "See where the child is. Sometimes children will jump right in. ... Let them go at their pace."

Parents can also stand back and see if children start to exhibit signs of stress, including nightmares, trouble sleeping or wetting the bed, he said.

"You want to watch children over time," Jones said. "They are very common. If they persist beyond a three- to four-week period of time," parents can seek a specialist.

Children who have been through previous trauma such as a hurricane, car accident or child abuse are at increased risk of showing signs of being traumatized, Jones explained.

If children become afraid of going on the subway or to the airport after hearing about the attacks, Jones said parents can gently reassure children so that they feel safe again.

"Normalize it," Jones said, adding that parents can tell children, "'It’s okay to be fearful.' It’s a reaction to these kind of events."

Parents can then point out the likelihood of terror events affecting the family is very low, Jones said, and point out safety precautions taken to diminish the likelihood of an attack.

"I’m always going to be here with you," Jones recommended parents tell frightened children.