Mental health experts and educators have issued their recommendations: Tell the children about the sniper in age-appropriate ways; follow normal home and school routines as much as possible; limit the amount of news they're exposed to; explain that the odds of being shot by the sniper are lower than of being hit by a car on the freeway. All worthwhile measures that will probably help decrease children's anxiety and the long-term psychological effects of the terror.
But even as we use these strategies, it's important to remember that every child is unique, and each will quite naturally find his or her own ways of coping with overwhelming feelings, just as children have for centuries in cultures where war and terrorism are more the rule than the exception.
For many years I have researched children's diaries, letters, poems and personal narratives to discover how they stay sane in the midst of war and terrorism. During the Russian Revolution, for example, 14-year-old Nelly Ptaschkina disclosed her antidote for wartime anxiety in her diary: "I must not permit my private life to be affected by general conditions. How shall I do this? I shall drive away my thoughts as soon as they touch upon dangerous ground. . . . I shall deceive myself. Yes, one must confess that in the end it will only be self-deception. But what matter. It will hurt no one, and for me it will be better, it will do me good."
Some children very consciously use their imaginations to work through their painful feelings. Incarcerated in the Warsaw ghetto, 15-year-old Mary Berg used her imagination to construct revenge fantasies that helped her deal with the overwhelming anger that was her response to Nazi occupation. In her diary she wrote, "I will tell everything about our sufferings and our struggles and the slaughter of our dearest, and I will demand punishment for the German murderers and their Gretchens in Berlin, Munich, and Nuremberg who enjoyed the fruits of murder, and are still wearing the clothes and shoes of our martyrized people."
Orphaned by the Nazis and incarcerated in the Lodz ghetto in Poland with his sister, a boy (whose name we will probably never know) used the margins of a French novel to describe how he used his imagination to stay sane in the face of almost certain death: "Thank heavens that I'm no realist for to be a realist is to realize and realizing the whole horror of our situation would have been more than any human being could endure. I go on dreaming, dreaming about survival and about getting free in order to be able to 'tell' the world, to yell and 'rebuke,' to tell and to protest."
Zelda Conn grew up in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, where, in 1987, 13 people were killed and many wounded by a bomb that exploded in the midst of the town's annual war memorial observance. When she was 12, Zelda devised her own way of calming her fears of terrorism. She described it in this poem called "Looking For Peace":
We look for peace And search around; Inside or out Where is it found?
Life on earth Gets so involved, Endless problems That can't be solved.
Close your eyes Open your heart, Feel your worries And cares depart.
The answer's easy For all to see It's in your heart So let it be.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has terrorized so many children for so many generations that it's hard to imagine children can still find constructive ways to channel their emotions. Still, an 18-year-old Israeli girl, whose pen name is "Red Rose," found a metaphor that she uses to help remind herself of what she needs to do to rise above her despair and hopelessness: "Two frogs got trapped in a jar of cream. They couldn't jump out of the liquid, and they couldn't climb because the sides of the jar were slippery. One frog said, 'By dawn I'll be dead,' and went to sleep. The second frog swam all night long, and in the morning found herself floating on a pat of butter."
In our search for a way to help children in this time of crisis, adults can reach out to them and provide a large measure of comfort. Still, we must honor each of their unique ways of coping. If they're pretending that there is no sniper, or playing the same mindless MP3 over and over again, or even boasting that they're going to "get" that sniper before he kills another single solitary person . . . so be it.
As long as kids aren't threatening actual harm to themselves or others, it's okay. They're resourceful and resilient, and they will find a way to make it through the night.
Laurel Holliday is a writer and journalist in Seattle and author of the four-book "Children of Conflict" series. She will answer questions about this article in a Live Online discussion at 1 p.m. on Monday at www.washingtonpost.com.