Helping Kids Cope in a Time of Crisis and Fear: Advice for Teachers and Parents

by Katy Abel

Editor's note: This article was written as a guide for helping children following the attacks of September 11, 2001. However, the content of the article will be useful for teachers and parents following any national or international tragedy.

In times of national agony, as we sense our security vanishing in the flames and smoke of unforeseen terrorism and tragedy, many of us wonder what—and how much—to say to children.

The very sudden and shocking nature of September 11 attack on America makes it all the more essential for Moms, Dads, and teachers to find the right words, and the right way to communicate a message of safety and family security. Here is family therapist Carleton Kendrick’s ages-and-stages advice for how to express thoughts and feelings—and listen to kids talk—about what’s happened.

Preschoolers: Limit Media Exposure

During the Persian Gulf War and following the bombing of the Oklahoma federal building, many preschool teachers observed young children reenacting scenes from television news broadcasts in their classroom play. But while children may mimic scenes of tragedy, they lack the cognitive ability to fully comprehend what they see. Scenes of carnage may seem cartoon-like to some, truly terrifying to others.

“Preschoolers are basically going to be mirroring what they hear and see around them,” observes Kendrick. “My strong suggestion is to keep preschoolers away from television images of what’s happened in New York and Washington.”

Kendrick advises parents to share their own feelings with preschoolers on a “need-to-know” basis. No four-year-old can understand a terrorist plot, but she may think it’s her fault if Mom is upset and it’s unclear why. A simple explanation (“I’m sad because some people were hurt in an accident today”) may be all that’s needed. Other suggestions: Maintain the family schedule as much as possible. This is a time when a sit-down dinner and a bedtime story can signal young children that while big buildings are falling down, the family structure remains intact.

Grades K to 3: Am I Safe?

Most young elementary school students will get information about what’s happened from their peers, if no one else.

“Just as you don’t want them to have knowledge of sex from the playground, so too you don’t want them to rely on their friends for information about these attacks,” cautions Kendrick. “You the parent have to filter the horror and the tragedy and somehow make it understandable and not paralyzing.” Since children this age are going to wonder first and foremost about their own physical safety, Kendrick suggests accenting the positive.

“I’d say, ‘We’re going to be a lot safer now,’” Kendrick advises. “Tell kids that we’ve learned from this that we have to have better plans to protect buildings and planes. This is important reassurance because children may have fears about their parents flying off on a business trip, or the family’s upcoming visit to Grandma’s for the holidays.”

Grades 4 to 6: More Sophisticated Safety Message

Children this age will still have safety concerns, but their questions will be more specific and complicated. They may ask for a definition of terrorism, or want to know if their city could be targeted next for attack.

“There has to be a discussion that includes background information and a context for what happened,” says Kendrick. “At this age you can certainly initiate a conversation, but always with, ‘What have you heard?’ That tips you off to what kids bring to the table.”

Children are also old enough by fourth grade to express their own feelings and hear about the full range of their parents’ emotions. At the same time, they still need reassurance that their parents are powerful caretakers who can protect them.

“’I’m looking out for you as best I can, taking care of you and voting for leaders who will take care of our country,’” is one way to express a desire to protect a child from harm.

Grade 7 and Up: Identity and Security

Parents can expect many pre-teens and teens to feel a heightened sense of anxiety in the wake of Tuesday’s attacks, Kendrick believes. The current climate of uncertainty and fear mirrors the emotions that many teens are experiencing in their personal lives.

“The adolescent needs a safe harbor to retreat to after going out and testing the limits,” Kendrick notes. “But now it appears to them that somebody’s gone out and blown up the harbor. So with teens it’s all the more important that you reinforce whatever you can about your family being the real safe harbor, even if there are choppy seas in the distance. This is a good time to tap into the strength of “we,” so they know they are not floundering out there.”

Teens and even younger children will take comfort in hearing about the good deeds and heroics that always accompany human tragedy. Share accounts of successful rescues, and tell children about the many Americans who are lining up to donate blood.

Children will also feel better when they themselves are given a chance “to do something.” Help children write condolence letters to the victims’ families, plant a tree or bush to honor their memory, or visit a local church to light a candle and say a prayer for comfort and peace.

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