Helping Kids Cope in a Time of Crisis and Fear

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Advice for Parents

by Katy Abel

Provided by

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 and Dads and teachers to find the right words, and the right way to communicate a message of safety and family security. Here is Family Education Network 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.”

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