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Sunday, December 8, 2002
PREPARING FOR WAR: Helping Your Children Cope in Your Protected Space
PREPARING FOR WAR: Helping Your Children Cope in Your Protected Space
By Dr. Batya L. Ludman
Jerusalem-----December 2002.....Being in a sealed room or bomb shelter at
the best of times for an adult is not easy, but should we have to go into
our sealed rooms in the next war, how can we make this an easier experience
for our children?
Most children will cope very well with being in a shelter as they will be
with their parents and will therefore feel secure. Assuming that parents
remain calm and are in control, children will feel very safe.
It is important to remember that if you are calm-they will be calm. You can
make this a "fun" experience, stay in control and give them a sense of
safety and security. This should be your primary concern. While few would
acknowledge that the experience of being in a closed space for an unknown
period of time with children is enjoyable, there are ways to make the best
out of the situation and make things more bearable.
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Talk to your children before there might be an actual need to use the
"safe room" but wait till the time seems right. Let them know that should
the situation warrant it, you would be taking them into the designated
space. Describe the space or area that they will be in. For some families, a
rehearsal or simply seeing the space may seem like a good idea and can help
everyone plan and prepare. For others, it may only provoke anxiety. You know
your family's needs the best. Some children may benefit from having a buddy
to chat with and this may be something you may want to arrange with another
parent who has a child that is close in age and whose family has similar
2. Make the information developmentally and age appropriate. The impact of
preparing a safe space on your child is very much dependent on their age and
stage of emotional development, their temperament, your anxiety level and
their proximity or exposure to previous or current danger. Typically,
children do best with simple and straightforward explanations and not a lot
of unnecessary details. While it is important to be honest and upfront, it
serves no purpose to overwhelm them with your fears. Many children know far
more than we realize and most if not all children who attend school have had
many prepatory drills and are both informed and quite "cool" about the whole
thing. Several children may have had experiences climbing up ladders, trying
on masks and other opportunities that may simply make adults cringe.
Children can go from being intensely concerned by details to nonchalantly
playing with a friend in a short span of time. Adults on the other hand tend
to be more uptight and anxious for more prolonged periods of time. You may
be feeling tense but they don't have to.
3. It is important to choose your words carefully to ensure that you get the
message across that you hope to convey. When listening to their questions,
you may need to probe deeper to find out what they are really asking, or
maybe, it is only you, and not they, that see the deeper issues. It is
important to clear up any inaccuracies that your children may have as this
confusion can only complicate an already difficult situation. The element of
not being able to predict can be especially difficult and this fear of the
unknown is often what causes us the most anxiety as we play games in our
minds and imagine the worst. This is important to point out to children as
often they do the same. While it is fine to acknowledge that you have
concerns and cannot necessarily answer all the questions, you can also help
them have many of their concerns addressed and clarified. Some children who
never thought about biological and chemical warfare for example, have now
heard more than they care to know and may have lots of unanswered questions.
4. Older children worry more about their own safety and about that of adults
that are important to them. Death becomes more real and while some children
may be oblivious, others may appear depressed, scared, withdrawn or
preoccupied. The seriousness of all of the preparations has not eluded them
nor has it given them comfort. Some children may wonder why if some of their
friends have chosen to leave, you have made the decision to stay in their
city or country. You may be asked very difficult questions. In any event,
children need to talk, express their concerns and have their feelings
validated. You are the one person who can provide this reassurance. You need
to convey to them that their safety takes top priority and you are doing all
that you can to ensure this.
5. Very young children may need little information beyond telling them that
they will be in a room with their parents and will play. Children need to
know that you will be there for them and if not you, someone whom you have
chosen that is an equally good substitute.
Lots of hugs and a good cuddle can go a long way to helping children feel
Make the space as child friendly as possible. Let children pick one or two
things that they set aside as special to bring into the room with them. This
may be their favorite blanket, a puzzle or a toy. For older children, a game
boy, a book, musical instrument such as a guitar, a deck of cards or just a
notepad and pen may be fine. Arts and crafts supplies, photo albums and
other family ideas are great to help pass the time. Now may be the perfect
opportunity to work on creating a family collage. A friend has even
suggested decorating the gas masks with various colors of white out, which
can be a lot of fun if it is done before the children have to wear them. A
tape recorder and tapes can also be soothing for everyone. It may even be
fun to create your own family tape of songs and stories.
6. Make sure that the space is child safe. There should not be dangerous
shelving units or other heavy pieces of furniture that could fall off the
wall, open plugs or sharp objects that a child can be injured by. A fan can
be very helpful as the room can get quite stuffy but again attention needs
to be focused on the blades and cord.
7. Empower the children so they feel good about their protected space. Ask
for their thoughts and input on various safety issues and plan assignments
that work for each of them. Young children can be in charge of making
temporary decorations and older children can help collect the supplies and
foodstuffs. They can also help to organize the area. Each child can have a
job specific to his or her age. Everyone can think of a special game, song
or finger play that they will help to teach to others.
Be clear and consistent about the rules in the shelter. For example, if the
rule is that everyone has to wear his or her masks, then children need to
know that this is critical. There is no room for negotiation but you can
give choices whenever possible. For example, a younger child needs to know
that when a parent says to put on the mask that he must do so. However, he
can be given choices as to whom he sits next to, and can choose which game
to play. Wearing a mask can also be reinforced through stickers that the
children get to put on the outside of their masks or through picking a
nonedible treat for later from a small surprise bag of goodies.
8. Food and drinks should be child friendly. While one can only drink water
when wearing a mask, other food and drinks should be kept in the miklat.
Again food should be child friendly and each child's special treat can be
set aside for a rough moment. Each person should have his or her own
individually sealed color-coded water bottles, as these are the safest to
drink from. (See recommendations for food in sealed packaging).
9. Consider the health needs of your child. Keep some diapers for young
children, and a potty/bucket or chemical toilet for older children. A supply
of children's medications should be available in the miklat in the event
that they will be needed.
Comfort is important. Keep a second set of clothes for each child in the
room so that a change of clothing can be done easily. For younger children,
long sleeved pajamas may be the perfect choice in terms of comfort.
10. Think relaxation. Practice relaxation exercises, yoga, meditation or
prayer to enable everyone to feel calm. Young children do well when they can
pretend to be limp spaghetti noodles and older children like to pretend that
they are lying on a nice beach or floating on a pond.
Read up and be prepared on what supplies you should have with you and know
what the suggested emergency procedures and numbers are for your area. Keep
this list close at hand.
11. Help children feel that they are in control. Although we would all
acknowledge that these are very unpredictable times, it is helpful for
children to have predictability. When they are not in the shelter, it is
important to keep up with routine as much as possible. Schedules with
respect to meals, homework and bedtimes, chugim and play dates with other
children help give everyone a sense of normalcy. Routine is also important
should we need to use our protected space over time. If children become
familiar with a pattern, they know what to expect and are less anxious and
more matter of fact. In spite of all of increased difficulties over the past
two years, look how well most of us have coped and have made the
12. Use television as a tool to help you and the family relieve stress and
beware of the impact that it has on the children if things should escalate.
Children may not be able to differentiate reality from fantasy and a
television on in the background may not be quite as harmless for little ears
as you think. Renting a video or exchanging videos with friends may be the
best form of family entertainment and can be a useful distracter in the
shelter if you also have a radio.
13. Finally, in order to look after our children we must look after
ourselves. If you or your children are not coping well, get professional
help to enable you to be less anxious. Children need to see you as an
effective role model. We all hope and pray that soon we will be able to look
back at this and laugh at how over prepared we were. Preparation is a
wonderful way to cope when we are not yet quite sure just what it is we are
going to be coping with. In the meantime, while there are no easy answers
and these are only suggestions, enabling your child to feel comfortable and
secure is one of the best gifts you can provide during these very difficult
Dr. Batya L. Ludman is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice
in Ra'anana. She works with children of all ages and their families as well
as with adults and couples in short term solution focused psychotherapy. She
specializes in trauma, bereavement and loss, stress, anxiety and depression,
parenting issues, behavioral problems, and marital/communication issues. She
does workshops on bereavement, stress management, and trauma, and has
published extensively in both the professional and lay literature. She
currently has a monthly column in the Jerusalem Post and is a frequent
columnist for Israel News Agency. For more information, please view her
website at http://go.to/drbatyaludman
A Public Service by: ISRAELPR.COM
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