Helping Children Deal With Adversity

An expert's thoughts on the best way to help children through this tough time.


I work in a suburb where a lot of people commute to New York City. Many families here know someone who was in the World Trade Center, and many have gone to memorial services. Children, however, tend to personalize what they see. They wonder: "Will it happen me? To my parents?" So you have to reassure them that it's unlikely to occur again and that steps are being taken to keep everyone safe.

I've found that when parents are anxious or upset, this transfers down to the child. In fact, there is about an 85% correlation between the fears of mothers and that of their young children. And even then, toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary school kids don't necessarily know what they're afraid of. Those under 4 may not even understand the concept of death. When they hear about the people who have died, they don't see it the way adults do. To them, those people could come back next week.

Of course, it doesn't help when families go overboard with precautions. One couple I met bought a truck and stocked it with dried foods, canned goods, and water, and kept it in their driveway. These actions may end up making children more anxious. The best way to help kids is for parents to be more rational about the situation and recognize that this is a media field day. I suggest turning off the TV and starting to live normally. You can hear if there's a new anthrax case on the 6:30 p.m. news. You don't have to check the TV every 20 minutes.

What You Should and Shouldn't Do

Many adults are concerned about what to tell children, how much to tell them, and how much not to tell them. For example, a group of nursery school teachers told me that they observed their children pretending that they were hijackers and that their erasers were knives. One teacher asked me, "Should I have stopped them? It seemed benign and their play just fell apart in a couple of minutes." I explained that children use play as a means of dealing with anxiety and understanding their world.

Some parents have told me that instead of building what they used to, their children are building two towers and then pushing them over. Again, these kids are using play as a means of understanding what happened. You don't have to put a stop to this type of behavior as long as the children aren't crying or upset.

What you can do is focus on raising children who are resilient. We may not be able to return to a time where there are no fears about terrorism. But other cultures have dealt with it and thrived. There's no reason why we can't as well.

Children have to deal with adversity from an early age. By adversity, I mean discipline. They need to be disciplined when they've done something that calls for a consequence. In addition, children should have chores starting at age 3. There's no reason why a 3-year-old can't be taught to pull napkins off a dining room table and throw them in a hamper or the garbage. As they grow older, you can give them more responsibility. In the end, all of these things will help us raise a population that can cope with fear and adversity. In the end, our children will thank us for it.

Jerry Brodlie, Ph.D., is chief of the department of psychology at Greenwich Hospital and also has a private practice in Greenwich, CT.

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