New York City and the nation are riveted by the news events about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Parents are concerned, worried and in shock. Children are also scared, confused and in disbelief. They are likely to be worried about their future and most importantly, about their family and other significant people in their lives. Here are some guidelines for dealing with children in the following days and weeks:
- Children look to their parents for reassurance; they will be affected by a parent's mood and reaction. Calm parents encourage calm in their children. Parents can show children that they too are sad but should temper their own intense emotions.
- Keep in mind that children's reactions depend upon their age, personality and coping style. Some children want to talk about the details, some are quiet and concerned, some may show an increase in their activity level, and some may prefer to get along with business as usual.
- Don't be afraid to talk about the tragedy. Start by finding out what their children already know and have seen. Listening to the children and answering their questions helps them deal with issues in their own way. Children are likely to be concerned about things of immediate importance, such as "Is school safe?" and "Can we still go visit Grandma at Thanksgiving?"
- Be truthful and honest in answers, using language the child can understand. Hiding information causes children to feel confused, reluctant to turn to adults for help, and mistrustful of other information.
- Reassure the children of their safety and assure them that you and many others are working to make sure they are safe. Reassure them about practical issues in their own lives such as "Mom will still take you to school" and "The police and firemen are putting out fires so we are safe."
- Have more than one conversation. A child's understanding and questions about difficult situations change over time. Be available and look for teachable moments for further exploration.
- Allow and encourage expression in private ways, such as use of journals or art.
- Maintain as much of a usual routine as possible. Familiarity is comforting to children and provides a sense of normalcy.
- Monitor exposure to news events and limit access if necessary. Repeated viewing by young children can be confusing, causing them to believe that events keep occurring. For older children overexposure can be overwhelming and leave them feeling helpless.
- Expect variations in a child's mood. Different reactions may occur at different times. As time passes, new events occur and the situation takes on new meaning as aspects of life may change for the short term or forever.
- It is common for children to be more clingy, to be concerned about separation, and to feel the need to be in close proximity to parents or even want to sleep with them. Parents should consider if their own anxiety is contributing to their child's fears. If sleeping together is allowed for the short term, it is helpful to return to normal bedtime routines as soon as possible.
- Working parents should make arrangements so that the child is not left alone after school during the time of the crisis.
- Be mindful of how issues are discussed with and near children. Prejudice and violence should not be encouraged as a way to solve problems. Seeking to place blame or to exact revenge does not repair hurt feelings or sadness.
- Determine your child's risk for problems. Those at most risk are children who have some personal experience with the tragedy; they may have been close to the area or have family or friends who have been hurt or killed.
- Children who have had difficulty before the crisis may show a re-emergence of their problems either temporarily or over time.
- Children may be more vulnerable if other stresses, such as divorce or financial problems, were occurring in the family prior to the crisis. They may need extra support and reassurance to feel in command.
- Attend to the children's and family's basic physical and mental health needs; eating, sleeping and participating in enjoyable activities are necessary and beneficial.
- Facilitate collecting of keepsakes and mementos.
- Support child's preference for public and private participation in memorial rituals, activities, services, donations of time and money.
- Stay involved in the children's lives and monitor their adjustment over time. If parents are concerned about their child, issues should be explored further with a counselor or mental health professional.
- Use available community, school, social and religious support networks and services.
About the Authors
Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist specializing in bereavement issues.