AGES 3 TO 5
Signs of distress: Clinginess, acting out, wanting to talk about the events repeatedly, sleep disturbances, regressive behavior such as thumbsucking and bedwetting
What to say: Your preschooler may ask you questions about what he's inadvertently seen on TV or heard from older children. You can say, "Yes, a very bad thing happened and people were hurt. But we're safe here. Mommy and Daddy will take care of you. There are also a lot of other people whose job it is to help other people who are hurt." Children this age still need to hear from you that you will be there for them. At the same time, they have a sense of the larger world and other people. They worry about how other people are faring.
What to do: Keep the TV turned off when your child is nearby. If you can't be with him, make sure your child is with people who are familiar to him. Children this age also feel more secure with routines, so stick to his regular schedule as much as possible (family meals, naps, bedtime, and so on). In addition to verbal comfort, you can provide concrete assurances like a night light and leaving the door to his room open when it's time to sleep. Make drawing materials, toy cars and trucks, and dolls or stuffed animals available to your child and stay nearby as your child plays with them. If your child draws a picture about the recent events or acts out something that's been upsetting him with the dolls, you can say, "Can you tell me about what you drew?" or "Let's pretend -- the Baby Bear doll seems very scared, but Mother Bear doll will take care of him."
AGES 6 TO 12
Signs of distress: Talks about the tragic events and feeling scared, headaches, stomachaches, sore throats and other signs of illness, sleep problems, loss of appetite, not wanting to leave the house, not wanting Mom or Dad to go to work
What to say: It's helpful for kids this age to hear their parents reflecting out loud about their feelings. You can say, "This is so upsetting to watch and hear about in the news. It makes me feel so sad, angry, and scared." Hearing parents talk about what they're feeling helps school-age children sort out their own emotions. You can also be reassuring and truthful at the same time. You can say, "This a very terrible thing that happened, but it's also very unusual. It's the first time in my life that anything like this has happened. And there are a lot of people in our government who are trying to make sure it doesn't happen again." You can also ask, "Where there certain things that happened in your day that seemed scary to you?" Then talk about her specific fears. For example, she may be worried about standing at the bus stop alone and waiting for the school bus. Or she may be worried about you taking a business trip out of town.
What to do: Limit the amount of TV your child sees. Make yourself more available, especially after school. For example, you can call your child's after-school program just to say hi and check in. Also, talk with your child's teacher about how the school is handling the recent tragedies. Help your child channel her feelings in a positive way. You can do something specific and personal ("Let's give Aunt Mary in New York a call and find out how she's doing today"), send a card of appreciation to the firefighters in your town, or participate in a community activity like donating food and supplies to a relief organization.