Bioterrorism: Talking with Kids About Threats They Can't See

by Virgina Hooper

Reviewed by Anita Gurian, Ph.D. and Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D.

Introduction

During times of conflict, children may hear news reports about the potential threat of bioterrorism and biological weapons. As adults, we have our own fears, but these reports in the news may prompt heightened anxiety and fear in children. We know how to handle a "natural disaster," such as fire or hurricane, which is "concrete," something kids can see or hear, but a biological agent is invisible and sounds mysterious. But once it has been talked about in the news, whatever the age of your child, it is a good idea to initiate a discussion and keep communication channels open. Experts say these conversations can give parents an opportunity to help children feel more secure and develop a better understanding of the complex world in which we live today.

How do I explain bioterrorism to a child? What details should I share?

Keep it simple. The same guidelines apply as with any serious conversation you have with your children. Give kids information that's age-appropriate, but honest and realistic, and don't give them more information than they need - or want. Children often sense when information is false. The goal is to address children's concerns and help them feel safe. So tailor the information for the individual child. Use words and concepts that your child can understand.

As a general explanation, you might explain that when terrorists want to hurt or scare people they may use bombs and guns. In addition, they may use "biological agents" that can infect, kill, or injure people and animals. When biological agents are used to purposely harm others, they are referred to as "biological weapons." For younger children, you might explain that these agents are "germs" that make people very sick. For the older child who may want more information, you can explain that there are three basic groups of biological agents that are used as weapons: bacteria, viruses, and toxins. These biological agents may be released into the air or water or food. News reports often mention chemical and biological weapons. Chemical weapons are poisonous vapors, aerosols, liquid or solids, that are dangerous for people, animals or plants. They can be spread by bombs, sprayed from the air or used as a liquid. Most of these biological and chemical weapons are difficult to make and to spread. Also, depending on the age of the child, you might provide names of some of the known kinds of infections that might be used in terrorism; for example, anthrax and smallpox are commonly mentioned in the media.

Be prepared for repetition. Keep in mind that asking the same questions over and over may be your child's way of seeking reassurance. So let your child know that you think questions and concerns are important. Because bioterrorism has been associated with particular terrorist groups, be careful to avoid stereotyping groups or people by race, nationality or religion. Use the opportunity to teach tolerance and explain prejudice. Remember that children learn from watching adults; they listen to your conversations with other adults. So remember that you're setting an example for your child.

How might kids react to the threat of bioterrorism in the news?

Many children worry. They are concerned about their own safety and the safety of the people they care about. Moreover, unlike adults, children don't have enough experience or knowledge to assess the likelihood of an event occurring in their "world." As an adult you need to help them put things into perspective. These days, bioterrorism is a prevalent news topic—especially during high security-alert periods—and children may think everyone around them is in constant danger. As with other disaster events, you should monitor your child's media exposure.

What are kids most worried about?

Children tend to personalize situations. They need to know that people around them are safe, but they also need reassurance about their own vulnerability to these "infections." For example, if a child becomes sick with a typical run-of-the-mill childhood illness, such as a sore throat or stomach ache, the child may worry unnecessarily. Watch for signs that a child may worry in silence and not voice these concerns. Listen for misunderstandings and confusion and correct any misinformation. Offer reassurance when it is warranted, but don't rush into the subject if it seems unlikely that the child is harboring these fears.

Be prudent. Don't offer a child too much information on physical symptoms associated with bioterrorism. Children's imagination may cause fears to blossom. Explain that everyday illnesses (e.g., colds, ear infections, or diarrhea) are very different from biological weapons infections. Unless a child asks specifically about symptoms associated with biological weapons, you probably don't want to share too much information. Moreover, many symptoms associated with common ailments—such as fever, respiratory symptoms and rashes—may resemble those of more serious threats.

Should I talk to my child about a family safety plan?

Probably, experts say. Disaster may strike quickly and without warning, and these events are more traumatic for children if they don't know what to do. So create a Family Safety Plan which can also give your children a greater sense of control over the unknown. It's important to remind kids that they'll probably never need to implement the plan but it's always safe to be prepared. Normalizing the situation can be helpful. Parents can remind children that they use smoke detectors, seat belts and bike helmets to stay safe even though it's rare that there is a fire or an accident. It's also a good idea to have some supplies that you can take with you quickly if you have to evacuate. Or if you're stranded you'll need a stock of home supplies and even fun and leisure activities. By giving the child an opportunity to participate in these plans and preparations, you are teaching the child a way of managing anxiety with constructive solutions.

Here are a few tips on making a family safety plan:

  • Develop and practice a family safety plan based on recommendations for your community.

  • Teach your child how to recognize danger signs.

  • Explain how to call for help.

  • Help your child memorize important family information, such as phone numbers.

  • Establish a "check-in" point if family members are separated.

  • Consider necessary accommodations for children with special needs

  • Determine what to include in any specific safety pack for a child when away from home.

  • Consult reliable resources such as those available through the federal government e.g. http://www.fema.gov/kids/ has child friendly information and guidelines.

What should I do to protect my child's physical safety?

Rely on up-to-date information from the proper authorities, including medical professionals and government officials. Parents should always consult their own medical doctor about specific precautions and recommendations related to their own health. If there is a biological weapons attack near you, authorities will tell you what to do. You may be asked to go to a safe shelter, or you may be told to stay where you are. As a general precaution, teach children to be aware of their surroundings. They should tell an adult if anything around them doesn't seem quite right. Coach children not to accept packages from strangers and not to touch any suspicious packages. Teach them to notice where exits are in buildings, especially large public buildings such as a movie theater or shopping mall. Remind children that if they're asked to evacuate a building, even in a drill, they should take it seriously and follow the directions of the officials. It's always a good idea for parents to know about the safety plan in place at their child's school. They should also communicate any specific information about the family's plan to school staff.

How can I reassure my child?

Balance the overall picture with a few helpful facts. For example, you can reassure a worried child that actual bioterrorism is quite rare. For older children, you might mention that in the history of the United States, the only biological attack occurred in the fall of 2001, when someone mailed anthrax to people in the government and in the media. You might point out that if a biological attack occurs, it will likely occur in restricted geographical areas, and most likely these areas will not be near your child and family. So, in fact, the chances of bioterrorism affecting your child and family are remote.

Tell children that precautions are being taken. Children need to know that parents, healthcare providers, school personnel and the government are doing everything they can to protect people from harm. Inform children who seem anxious about the threat of chemical or biological attack that there is a system in place to detect any outbreak of attacks and diseases around the world (Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network) and the government is prepared to provide any necessary treatment. You can explain that we have vaccines for smallpox and antibiotics for anthrax. When talking with a young child, use simple language, such as "there are medicines to treat these infections."

Sometimes you may need to dig a little deeper. If a child appears overly worried or preoccupied, probe their thoughts with a few open-ended questions to understand the nature of their anxieties and fears. Encourage children to turn to adults—their parents, teachers or others—for help when they feel scared or confused. Encourage them to ask questions. It's important to maintain daily routines and reassure children that there's a plan in place if something should happen. Let them know it's okay to be scared or worried, but they will be cared for and things will eventually settle down and be normal again.

How can I help my children deal with their worry and concern?

Help them find a "voice" for complicated feelings. Give children opportunities to channel their anxieties and concerns. Encourage them to draw or paint pictures of how they feel about their experiences. Hang these pictures at eye level so they can be seen easily. Look for ways to enable children to have a sense of control and faith in the future, by developing plans for activities that will take place later—next week, next month. What not to do? As with any disaster event, you should monitor your child's media exposure. Experts advise against encouraging a young child to use the internet to learn more about bioterrorism. As a parent you need to filter this raw information for your child. Parents of older children should check out and gather information together and discuss what they find.

How do I know if my child is having trouble?

Children are able to cope better with threats when parents, friends, family, teachers and other adult support them and help them understand their experiences. Keep in mind that children of different ages and personality styles will handle stresses in their own way. You know your child. Some children may not show distress because they don't feel upset, while others may not experience anxiety for several weeks or months after a stressful period. Others may keep their feelings private, but they too need your attention and support. Watch for any signs that anxieties or fears are not resolving or are getting in the way of a child's ability to enjoy family and friends or participate in school. And, as always, if a child doesn't respond to normal reassurance and feelings interfere with normal activities consider consulting a mental health specialist. These are difficult times for everyone.

About the Author

Virgina Hooper, print and web science writer, is a volunteer contributor to AboutOurKids.org