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.
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.