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Friday, February 7

Children need guidance, stability in unstable world

By Fredreka Schouten

SPRINGFIELD, Va. - The threat of war and terrorism strikes close to home for Kat Norwood.

Her dad, an Army colonel, survived the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. An uncle is with U.S. forces somewhere in Afghanistan. Family friends soon may be deployed to Iraq.

But the crises have changed her for the better, said Norwood, an 18-year-old senior at West Springfield High in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

"I definitely read the papers all the time now," she said.

And at night, around the dinner table, her family talks through the day's events - whether it's a missed homework assignment or a war halfway around the world.

"Our approach would be the same if we talked about Iraq or drugs in school," said her mom, Leslie Norwood. "We try to build a general foundation of openness with the kids. At a time of crisis, it's almost too late if you haven't built that foundation."

As the United States edges closer to war with Iraq and the nation remains on heightened alert for terrorist attacks, experts say it's more important than ever for parents to talk with kids about the world around them and learn to cope with signs of stress in their children.

From planes plowing into buildings to the Columbia space shuttle breaking apart over Texas, "a lot has happened in the last year or two," said Scott Poland, director of school psychological services for the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District outside Houston.

"There's a lot of uncertainty in our world, and those are major stresses on all of us," Poland said.

Psychologists urge parents, teachers and child-care workers to look out for what internist and author David Marks calls SOS, for signs of stress.

"Parents can forget the fact that a lot of physical complaints can have emotional causes," said Marks, author of "Raising Stable Kids in an Unstable World."

Physical signs of stress include headaches, unexplained fatigue, pains, aches and changes in sleep patterns, he said.

In the week after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Marks' then-6-year-old son Jacob began blinking his eyes frequently as if he was experiencing a facial twitch. Marks learned from talking with Jacob that he was worried about buildings falling in Manhattan where his father works and his grandparents live.

Marks said he and his wife reassured Jacob that the city was safe, that nothing like this had happened before and that the president was looking for the bad guys and would punish them.

After the talk, Jacob's blinking stopped, Marks said.

Experts say talking with kids about their fears is crucial

But they say parents and teachers should avoid quizzing young children in detail about their worries. Instead, ask general questions that give kids a chance to raise their concerns, said Alex Thomas, an expert on child psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Adults should answer those questions honestly but should avoid overwhelming kids with too much information about war or terrorism. It's the same advice Poland gives parents who are talking to their kids about sex.

"When kids asks about sex, you answer the question, but you don't tell them every thing you know about sex," he said.

Other advice:

- Maintain your normal schedule.

"There's great comfort in the routines," Poland said. If you read to your child before bedtime, keep the practice going.

- Restrict your children's access to media coverage of wars and disasters.

"These kids watch the news, and the news can be too detailed and too graphic - especially if they watch the news alone," said Susan Schaeffler, principal of a middle school in Washington, D.C.

Adults need to remember that young children might not understand that Iraq is far away from their homes or know the difference between live and recorded images.

- Give kids a variety of ways to express their feelings.

At Columbia Elementary School in Palm Bay, Fla., Principal Linda Jennings and her staff knew students needed to vent their feelings about the space shuttle tragedy.

The school, not far from the Kennedy Space Center, is named after the Columbia. And the students had watched its launch Jan. 16.

In addition to participating in classroom discussions, some students posted tiny American flags outside the school. In one fourth-grade class, students wrote their feelings on index cards and used them to create an in-class memorial.

Carol Hurd's kindergarten students sent cards to the astronauts' children. "Some of them included knock-knock jokes," she said. "They said they wanted to make them smile."

- Keep as calm as you can.

``The bottom line is kids, especially elementary school kids, look at the adults around them to see how they're coping," Poland said.

Parents need to project calm and optimism as much as possible, he said. If you need to talk about your fears, do so with other adults, not your children.

Leslie Norwood said her family's optimism and deep religious faith have helped them weather the stresses of military life.

While she frantically awaited word her husband was safe on Sept. 11, 2001, "the first thing I came to very quickly was that God knows more than we do," Norwood said. "Whatever happens, we'll be OK because we're in his hands."

On the Web:

The National Association of School Psychologists. The Web site provides more tips for parents.