Feeling Safe in a Scary World

Since September 11, adults have learned to live with a new sense of uncertainty, but kids still need extra comfort, reassurance, and honesty.

Introduction

As we begin a new year, we're all painfully aware that we now live in a different world. As parents, our primary role is to love and protect our children -- and yet the tragic events of September 11 have threatened our own sense of emotional security. Even as our government wages war on terrorism, we must do all we can to assuage our children's lingering fears. We spoke to members of the Parents advisory board about specific ways that you can help your kids feel safer in the months to come.

Respect routines. "Most of us have been able to go back to our normal lives, but it's a new sense of normal," says Harold Koplewicz, M.D., director of the New York University Child Study Center and the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Bellevue Hospital Center, in New York City. Younger children feel particularly uneasy when their regular routines are disrupted. Try to have dinner, bathtime, story hour, and bedtime at the same times you always have -- and save phone calls and watching the news for after your kids are in bed. If your child has been wanting to sleep with you in recent months, help her make the transition back to her own bed.

Don't avoid the subject. "It's natural to assume that discussing terrorism and war might upset your children, but kids need explanations about what is going on," says Mark Widome, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Pennsylvania State University, in Hershey. "Otherwise, they'll imagine something more scary than what's really happening -- and they'll be less likely to trust you." The best approach is to ask your kids what questions they have, listen carefully, and give simple but honest answers.

Keep responses age-appropriate. Explaining what happened on September 11 was very difficult, but dealing with kids' ongoing questions, such as "Who are we at war with?" or "Is something else bad going to happen?" may be even more challenging because the answers aren't clear-cut.

Most children under age 5 don't care about details -- they just need reassurance that they and you are safe. For school-age kids, you can say that you're not sure who all the bad guys are but that our government is doing everything it can to find them and stop them from ever doing these things again, suggests Kyle Pruett, M.D., a clinical professor of child psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and School of Medicine, in New Haven, Connecticut. For kids under age 10, talking about religious extremism will be too confusing. "Explain that the enemy is anyone who attacks or deliberately kills people who have done nothing wrong, or anyone who knows about an attack but doesn't report it," says Sharon L. Ramey, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. If your child asks about anthrax, you can say it's a serious disease and that some people have gotten sick, but explain that there's a medicine to treat it and that you're very careful not to open any mail that doesn't look right.

    Be Calm

    Expect puzzling play. On September 13, I came home to find my 8-year-old daughter and her friend -- who wasn't able to return to her apartment because she lived near the World Trade Center -- pretending to be on a crashing airplane. In the months since the attacks, children across the country have been expressing their emotions through play and art. "This will continue to be an important part of fantasy play, because that's how kids resolve issues," explains John Gottman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child (Fireside, 1998).

    Turn off the TV. The images of September 11 were not only frightening for kids, but they were often confusing: Many children who repeatedly saw tape of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center thought that many different buildings were being hit. Preschoolers shouldn't be watching the news at all, and kids in elementary school should always watch with you, Dr. Widome advises. Children don't need to see footage of bombs striking during the night or preparation for biological warfare.

    Be calm. Even babies and toddlers sense when you're anxious. No matter how old your children are, the best way to keep them from being scared is to show them that you're calm. "Tell them that you have faith in our government and that we live in a great country that is the most powerful nation in the world," Dr. Koplewicz says. Get specific about safety. Give concrete examples of safeguards that are being taken: Airlines are being extremely careful to make sure that no weapons or bad people get onto their planes; there are more people helping watch the planes in the sky and extra police officers and patrols at the airport; there are new strong doors keeping anyone but the pilot from going into the cockpit. If you have to fly for business, make a special effort to stay in touch, and phone home as soon as you arrive. "Leave sealed notes for the kids to open at a special time each day when you're out of town," Dr. Ramey suggests.

    Reassure them at home. You might explain that many people died at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon but that, amazingly, thousands of people survived -- in part because they calmly followed the safety procedures for their building, Dr. Widome says. Though you don't want to alarm your child with excessive safety instructions, it's a good idea to go over what to do in a fire. Seeing locks on doors and knowing about other types of physical protection gives young children a sense of control.

      Hold Your Children Close

      Find ways to help others. "The most important thing is for kids to get active in the face of fear," Dr. Pruett says. Talk to your children about what we can all do to make our country stronger. They can hold a bake sale or collect change for the Red Cross, write a letter to President Bush and thank him for his leadership, or even invite a lonely neighbor to dinner. Let your kids know that our government is sending planeloads of food and medicine to people in Afghanistan so they will be able to survive the winter, Dr. Pruett suggests. It's important for kids to know that our country is not just fighting the bad people there but also trying to help the innocent people.

      Know when to seek professional help. About 10 percent of children will continue to be very troubled and experience symptoms such as clinginess, difficulty sleeping, poor concentration at school, lack of interest in regular activities or friends, or obsessive interest in violent play. "These kids need a mental-health evaluation because they're at risk for depression," Dr. Koplewicz says. "The good news is that they can be successfully treated with behavioral therapy. But in some cases, medication may be needed."

      Hold your children close. It's a perfect time to make some hot chocolate, snuggle together under a blanket on the couch, and read one of your favorite stories. Dr. Widome says, "It may sound simple, but physical affection reminds kids of all ages that they're loved and that they're going to be taken care of."

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