In the Wake of the Attacks: Helping Kids Cope

Helpful ways to deal with your child coping with trauma.

September 11's terrorist attacks have damaged all Americans' sense of safety and security. Children are especially vulnerable to the event's emotional aftermath. Here are some principles to help shape your response to your children, and some tips for responding to their needs.

Principle 1: There is no one typical reaction one can or should expect from children. The responses of children to the terrorist attacks and deaths will vary all over the map, from seeming disinterest to nightmares and panic attacks. How any individual child or adolescent responds will depend on several factors, such as their age (see our tips for talking about tragedy to kids under 5), their basic personality type, and the degree of their connection to the event. If they've had recent losses or other traumatic events in their lives, they may find coping with even more tragedy especially difficult.

Principle 2: Children understandably may have an increased sense of fear about their safety, and the safety of others, particularly if they have parents or relatives who fly frequently. It is important to provide a sense of security and safety for our children, while not sacrificing honesty and truth. Do not lie to children about what happened. At the same time, reassure them that you will do everything in your power to protect yourself and to keep them from harm. We will all be inundated with images in the media everywhere we turn. Children need the opportunity to process what they think and how they feel about this, without it consuming them or violating their need to feel safe. Don't impose your own fears on them; listen to what they have to say and watch for changes in behavior that may be of concern: nightmares, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, changes in appearance or habits, depression.

Six Tips for helping children and adolescents cope with the attacks:

  • Listen to what they are saying verbally, as well as what their behavior is saying. Don't try to judge, control, or direct what they are saying. Rather, provide the opportunity for them to express what they need to as long as their behavior is safe. They may also need to tell the same story or ask the same questions over and over. Be patient and listen to their concerns. Non-verbal children may "play out" their fears, sometimes through angry or aggressive behavior.
  • Be honest. Don't lie about what happened. They will hear the truth from others, and if they believe you are not to be trusted, they won't share with you. At the same time, don't impose your own fears and concerns on them. At their age, they cannot fully understand the scope and worldwide significance of these attacks.
  • Encourage consistency and routines. One way to help restore a sense of safety is to keep to your routines and "predictable" behavior. This is not to imply a rigid adherence to rules, so you still should have some flexibility, but because an event of this magnitude creates a feeling of being out of control. Children need to have a sense of grounding and safety.
  • Resist being overprotective. It's natural to want to be extra protective, but often by doing so we are meeting our own adult needs at the expense of our children's needs. Take all necessary precautions in protecting your children, but don't go overboard in doing so. Some children may be fearful of separation from their loved ones.
  • Don't be surprised by children or adolescents who seem to think whathappened is "no big deal." Some children and adolescents may be (or appear to be) unaffected by the terrorist events. For some, this may be a natural way to protect themselves from the possibility that they are vulnerable. Much like our bodies go into shock when a physical trauma happens, our minds can go into a self-protective numbing in order to cope with the enormity of traumatic events. Additionally, a typical American child at age 18 has witnessed over 800,000 deaths on television, and may not have a full understanding of the difference between reality and made-for-TV shows.
  • Don't be surprised by children or adolescents who don't "act their age." Some children will be anxious and insecure, and their behavior may revert to younger behaviors. Others may exhibit behaviors beyond their age, acting, in effect, like "little adults." Understand that they are, in their own ways, trying to make sense of what is beyond the comprehension of most adults.

Donna L. Schuurman, Ed.D., is executive director of The Dougy Center for GrievingChildren and president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling.

Do you have a child who is directly affected by a death? The Dougy Center for Grieving Children, a nonprofit organization serving children, teens andfamilies following the death of a family member or friend, has a national directory of children's grief programs and other resources. Go to www.grievingchild.org or call (503) 775-5683.

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