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Coping With Tragedy
Children need 'reassurance' in face of tragedy

Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2001
Click here for the original article.

BETHESDA, Maryland (CNN) -- How do you tell children about Tuesday's unprecedented tragedy? How do you reassure them while also trying to explain what happened? CNN's Kathy Slobogin talked to Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell, a certified trauma specialist and head of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. The non-profit group has trained thousands of disaster response workers.

CNN: On such a horrific day, a lot of parents feel terrified and helpless. What advice would you give them for talking to their children?

Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell: I think one of the most important things is for parents to remain as calm as possible under the circumstances, to keep their emotions in check, because children will react to what they see around them. So it's very important that they maintain calmness that they maintain a schedule that the family should eat about the same time that they usually eat. Bedtimes should be about the same.

They should also talk with their children. Try to reassure them that they are safe, that this was an incident that is not directly going to happen on their street, their block and their home.

CNN: Should you tell your children that they are in fact safe?

Mitchell: I think you need to tell them more on a family basis that it is unlikely that every family in the United States is targeted, that it's not going to be in everybody's living room.

CNN: What if children ask, "How could this happen?" This is supposed to be the most powerful, safest country in the world.

Mitchell: That is one of the things that parents can say -- one of the great things about America is that it is an open society. But by being an open society, we don't have a police state, we don't have intelligence assets a lot of other countries do, so by being open we do become more vulnerable. However, strong open societies usually prevail in the end.

CNN: The images on television are riveting for a lot of us, but possibly frightening for a lot of children. Is it a good idea to simply turn the TV off?

Mitchell: My recommendation would be to turn the television off. Read to the child, play some games with the child, try to keep the child or children preoccupied with other things.

I don't think we want to make believe that nothing happened ... but at the same time, I think it's important to say a terrible thing happened, but life is going to go on and we're going to do what we can do to keep you safe and to keep the family safe, and do those sorts of things that keep the family together.

CNN: What does it do to children to see those images of buildings tumbling down over and over again?

Mitchell: Children neurologically are not well suited to deal with extremes of trauma, so when they see this kind of stuff, right now it may look like some of the movies they have seen on television. Except in this case people don't get up and act in the next (movie). In this case they're injured because they're injured or they're dead because they're dead. So it can be very traumatizing for children to see these images on TV. They don't understand what this is all about...So that's why I'm suggesting that we not allow an excessive amount of TV for children at this particular point.

CNN: What kind of behavior should parents expect to see in their children?

Mitchell: Children may lose their appetite, they may resort to bed-wetting, they may have some acting out behavior, some disciplinary problems. They may want to seek to sleep in a parent's room. That may be ok for a couple of days. So alterations to what is typical may be ok for a while until there is some calming of this.

They may draw out pictures of this and that's actually helpful, to allow them to express their feelings and reactions, to allow them to draw diagrams and pictures of this tragedy as they interpret their world.

In a world that seems changed forever, Dr. Mitchell says children need something they can count on.

Mitchell: Children need to be hugged, children need to be held. They need reassurance that the world will continue to function, that there will be a tomorrow. That there will be a world for them.

RELATED STORY: Schools struggle to help students understand terrorist attacks
September 12, 2001

RELATED SITES: International Critical Incident Stress Foundation
KidsHealth.org: Helping Your Child Deal With the Terrorist Tragedy

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Counseling resources
  • U.S. Justice Department family assistance center's victim hot line, 800-331-0075
  • D.C. Department of Mental Health community-based sites , including the Northwest Family Center, 202-673-2042, and the Child and Family Therapy SE Center, 202-645-3600.
  • D.C. public schools has established two hot lines to help people cope. The line for children is 202-442-7699, and the line for parents who need advice on how to talk to their children is 202-442-5674.
  • Grief and Spiritual Counseling Center Priests and professional counselors will be available from 10 a.m to 2 p.m. The center is located at the Our Lady of Lords Catholic Church, 830 South 23rd Street, Arlington, Va., 703-841-3835.
  • Officials at the Pentagon are asking Army personnel assigned to the Pentagon on Sept. 11 (or families trying to locate their loved ones) to call 1-800-984-8523 or 703-428-0002. Navy and Marine personnel assigned to the Pentagon should call 1-877-663-6772.
  • A hotline for complaints of verbal and physical assaults against Muslims, Arab-Americans and other minorities has been established by the U.S. government. The hotline number is 800-552-6843.
  • The National Mental Health Awareness Campaign, 877-495-0009
  • The Office of Victims of Crime has established a hotline at 1-800-331-0075 to leave contact information to get more details about victims and survivors.
  • Family members of any victims can call the Washington Hospital Center at (202) 784-2264. Other victims have been taken to other area hospitals with various injuries.
  • The American Psychological Association's Referral Line, 800-964-2000.
  • Arlington County has a 24-hour Mental Health Services Mobilization Center where trained mental health professionals help people dealing with emotional trauma. Officials are also organizing supports and emotional meetings throught the country that will begins sometime this week. To talk to a mental health professional or to find out about group sessions, call 703-228-5160.
  • The Community Service Board of Fairfax County will schedule support groups, led by a mental health professional, for peolple who have not lost a family member of friend but are experiencing distressing feelings after the terrorist actions. Groups are open to residents of Fairfax County and the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church. To learn more, call 703-799-2723.
  • Grief and Spiritual Counseling Center, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. Priests and professional counselors are available from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Open to anyone. To learn more, call 703-841-3835.
  • Virginia Hospital Center has a hot line families can call at (703) 558-6763.
  • Crisis and Family Stress Hotline, 202-223-2255.
  • Montgomery County Hotline, 301-315-4000.
  • Prince George's County Hotline, 301-864-7233.
  • Frederick County Hotline, 301-662-2255.
  • CrisisLink, 703-527-4077.
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Discussing terrorism with young children

Published: Tuesday, September 11, 2001
Publication:Zero to Three
By:Tom Salyers

In the wake of today's horrific acts of terrorism, parents of young children will likely be asking how they should discuss the day's events with their children. ZERO TO THREE (http://www.zerotothree.org), a national nonprofit organization focused on the healthy social, emotional and intellectual development of babies and toddlers, offers the following statement about discussing today's events with babies and toddlers:

Note: This statement is not intended as advice for families that are directly affected - e.g., those who have family members who work in the World Trade Center or Pentagon. Rather, this advice is for families who are concerned about how today's news will affect young children who hear about it in the news media or in conversations. In addition, please note that this information relates to how to discuss this situation with young children up to age three.

First and foremost, young children are concerned about themselves and the ones they love. Therefore, they need to be reassured that their family members and loved ones are okay and that their family will keep them safe. Don't cover up what has happened, but keep it simple. Be honest, but not graphic. You might consider saying something like: "Bad people are hurting other people and we don't like it." Adults should acknowledge that it's scary, upsetting and very much out of the ordinary. Monitor and limit exposure to the media coverage of the events. Do the same with adult conversations that young children may hear.

Young children take their cues from people who care about them. Therefore, it is important for adults to be strong for their children. You are their rock - if you fall apart, things are even more difficult for them. The worst thing for them is to feel that you are out of control. However, you don't have to be jolly. In addition, it's okay to cry, to be upset, or even angry. It's important that your children know that feelings are okay and that they are not the cause of your feelings.

Create a comfort zone for yourself and your children. Do what's comforting that brings you together as a family, for example, lighting candles or praying. In addition, keep up your normal routines, which creates stability, particularly during exceptional times.

Guidelines for what matters to children at particular ages:

1-year-olds are upset when you're upset. They most likely will not know about or be able to understand what has happened. However, they may react to your tension, fear or pain. Be reassuring.

2-year-olds have a concept of hurt. They will pick up on people being hurt -- point out that there are lots of people helping those who are hurt. Reassure them that you will keep them safe.

3-year-olds will have more understanding of what they see on the news and will wonder if it's real. You might try something like, "yes, it's real - but we're okay." Talk about it, and don't ignore it. Convey the conviction that you're safe and they, too, will be safe. Don't be surprised if they talk about it over and over again - just continue to reassure them. Children as young as two might express fear about airplanes, helicopters, sirens, etc. - again, reassure them.

Contact for Reporters: Tom Salyers
(202) 638-1144 (w)
(301) 589-2121 (h)

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Dr. Steven Marans: Talking to children about violence

Published: Thursday, September 13, 2001
Click here for the original article.

Dr. Steven Marans is the head of the National Center of Children Exposed to Violence at Yale University's Child Study Center. He joined the CNN.com chat room from Connecticut.

CNN: Welcome to CNN.com Newsroom, Dr. Marans.

STEVEN MARANS: Good morning. I'm glad I can join you. I'm speaking to you from the Yale Child Study Center, which is home to the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence.

CNN: Dr. Marans, this incident has presented many challenges for parents and teachers. Can you give us some guidance as to how much we should be talking to kids about these events? Won't it greatly depend upon the age of the child?

MARANS: Yes, it does depend on the age of the child. But perhaps the most important issue is that children need to have adults who are available to listen to what is on their minds. That it is the greatest importance that teachers and parents are able to demonstrate to children that they can tolerate hearing about all sorts of ideas and strong feelings. Parents and teachers need to listen carefully to their children in order to understand the issues that are uppermost in their children's minds.

The other issue is that for all of us, children and adults alike, there is no greater fear than that of losing someone that we love. And that there is no greater fear than being frightened of damage to one's own body or to the body's of people that we love. CHAT PARTICIPANT: Don't you believe children should not be exposed to this media coverage all day?

MARANS: I would agree that children should not be exposed to unremitting coverage of the events. There are, for example, younger children under the age of eight and perhaps a little bit older, where the exposure is more overwhelming than informative. It is important however that parents gauge what kind of information children are asking for and to help children find the answers to their questions based on available information. However, too much information and repetition of the scenes of Tuesday's tragedy may overwhelm children rather than helping them to discuss their questions, concerns and fears. When children are watching, of whatever age, it is most beneficial when parents can watch the news with them.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Marans. Children today are way more sophisticated than we were. Just tell them the truth on what happened. They can cope extremely well. Don't you think?

MARANS: Children need to know the truth and part of that truth is that this event was unanticipated and a tragedy occurred. Children need their parents' support in recognizing that bad things can happen, that we can feel afraid and saddened. And that while many children can cope, all of us, even adults, need support in being able to bear and tolerate the enormous feelings that have been aroused by these tragic events.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How will you prevent the children from growing up into hateful adults considering this terrorism?

MARANS: Often, children and adults respond with hatred and rage when we feel most helpless in the face of overwhelming experiences. These events remind us that as families, and communities, and as a nation, we are at our best when we recognize the strength of our feelings both in terms of our anger as well as the feelings of sadness. It is the role of our nation's leaders to determine the course that will ensure that our country stands firm against acts of terror and that responses are determined by what is best for our country, not only the attempt to seek revenge.

Lastly, [with regard to] the events that are stimulating this discussion, we also need to remind our children and demonstrate to them that in that terrible moment of crisis, our country is pulling together, that we have seen enormous acts of heroism of communities and individuals supporting one another, and that as an entire nation we are truly one and indivisible. These values, part of being an American, are values that we also have an opportunity to convey to our children -- and our demonstration of the goodness and generosity in others, especially in a time of crisis.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: I have heard it said that adults should refrain from being emotional. Is it not important to show children that it is ok to be upset and that crying is ok?

MARANS: Yes. I think that there is an important distinction to be made between demonstrating our sadness and our frustration and a demonstration or a presentation of enormous anxiety and fear. Children often learn that they can cope with and tolerate their own feelings of sadness when they see the adults around them able to cope with their feelings. It is perhaps more constructive for adults to help children put their feelings into words and to recognize the range of their feelings, then for example, to only demonstrate the adult's own rage and fear.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: My four year old thinks it's a simple fire. I agree with him on that for his sake. How do you feel about that?

MARANS: I think what is most important is hearing the four-year-old's ideas and hearing if there are any further questions that the four-year-old has. In addition, it is important to be able to look for signs of distress that the child may demonstrate in behaviors rather than in words. When behaviors are disrupted when children are demonstrating their anxiety, it is often a signal to try to expand the discussion by asking the child to describe more of their ideas about what they have seen or heard.

CNN: Most would assume that kids would be afraid, but when my 12-year old saw the pictures, he seemed not to grasp the reality of the horror -- his first reaction being that the collapse of the buildings looked "cool." Has he become de-sensitized or is it just too "unreal" for all of us?

MARANS: I think the short answer is that is it too unreal for all of us and that when we are unable to digest the enormity of the situation we quite automatically separate out, divide off, the feelings that most overwhelming. To be able to see a building collapse as if one is watching an adventure film is far more tolerable than immediately grasping that the victims are mothers, father, sisters, brothers, neighbors, friends, fellow citizens. This reaction is quite a normal one.

I think that with adolescents in particular the idea of sharing painful and vulnerable feelings goes counter to their own trends in development. Rather than forcing them into discussions about their feelings, parents and teachers can encourage them in the expression in their ideas by listening in whatever form their concerns may take.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why should we not address the psyche of the act itself? Children should be educated in the fact this is a tool to instill fear and chaos among us.

MARANS: I believe that older children can be talked to about the aims of terrorism. In doing so, adults also have the opportunity to instill in their children values that have to do with what it means to be an American citizen. What it means to stand firm in defense against the principles against freedom and liberty. And what it means to stand together as a nation, resolute in our determination to not collapse with the collapse of buildings and the loss of life. It is part of our job as adults to demonstrate and help our children to tolerate the feelings that accompany horrific tragedy and to join together in resisting the very aims of terrorist intent.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

MARANS: America is an extraordinary country. In the best traditions of this country we do not turn away from challenge but fact it head on in order to move ahead. In the face of the enormous loss of life and threat to everyone's sense of security, it is especially important to recognize that strong feelings need not defeat us but become the inspiration for moving ahead together, recovering, and supporting all of our citizens in the wake of what is a family and national tragedy. Lastly, further information can be reached at: http://www.nccev.org

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Steven Marans.

MARANS: Thank you.

Dr. Marans joined CNN.com from New Haven, CT. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Thursday, September 13, 2001.

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How much or how little should parents say to their children?

Published: Friday, September 14, 2001
Publication:The New York Times
By:Gina Kolat
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From New York, where the nightmare of the terrorist attacks was inescapable, to small towns, where the burning buildings and the grim search for bodies could seem so remote as to be unreal, parents have been trying to cope with the question of what, and how much, to tell their children. Should they insist on discussing the events? Should they reassure their children? Should they show their own fears?

Some turned to pediatricians, others to psychologists, others to religious leaders or school systems. And others have been trying to muddle through on their own common sense.

But while there is no shortage of expert advice, there also is no one formula for helping children cope with such a terrifying event in American history.

Psychologists, educators and religious leaders agree that parents should minimize the amount of time their children spend watching the endless replays on television of the attacks and the searches for bodies in the wreckage. They also agree that children wanted and needed to talk to their parents about what happened, whether or not the children initiated the discussions. Children wanted to be reassured and they wanted to know that they were safe. But they were not helped by false reassurances or evasions, experts said.

"You can't minimize this," said Dr. Flemming Graae, the director of child and adolescent psychiatric services at the Westchester Division of New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains. "You can't hide the reality of what is going on."

But, he added, "You can't open a book and decide how much you're going to tell a 10-year-old about terrorism."

Dr. Robert Lifton, who is in the department of psychiatry at Harvard University, said that in his studies of how children coped with disasters, he has learned that the biggest mistake parents made was to try to protect their children.

"Parents talk too little about what kids see and experience," he said. "Also, parents are of course coping with their own struggles and don't want to acknowledge or are reluctant to acknowledge the extent of the destruction." But Dr. Lifton also said that it was worse for children when parents evaded the subject than when they talked openly about the frightening events.

The problem with simply reassuring children, Dr. Lifton said, was that then they might imagine that even worse things were happening. What they needed, he said, was to hear that they were safe and that their parents would take care of them.

Dr. Howard Weinblatt, a pediatrician in Ann Arbor, Mich., said he told parents that rather than just blurting out everything they knew, they had to use their instincts about how much and what the child really wanted to know. And they must take their child seriously.

"That means stopping what you are doing," he said, and listening to what the child was saying. He has found that sometimes children, and even teenagers, have surprising misunderstandings.

On Tuesday evening, Dr. Weinblatt said, a 16-year-old girl was at his office for a routine visit. Suddenly, she started talking about the terrorist attacks. "She said, `What's going to happen to the world now that they blew up the World Trade Center? Now there won't be any world trade,' " he said.

"Imagine how scary that was for that child," Dr. Weinblatt said. "But if you had not listened to her and just talked to her about how terrible it was, and that there was such a loss of life, you would have missed it."

Dr. Graae said that a 3-year-old girl was in his office playing while he saw her older brother. She began pushing little human figures off his desk.

It turned out that the child had caught a glimpse on television of people leaping to their deaths from the World Trade Center after the planes has crashed into the towers. She was deeply upset, and this was her way of expressing it.

For Muslim children, the terrorist events can be doubly frightening, said Imam Hassan Qazwini, the religious leader of the Islamic Center of America in Detroit. "All eyes are being directed toward us, Muslims in America," Imam Qazwini said.

"My children and other children were so terrified," he said. "They could not understand why there now was so much hatred against Muslims and Arabs. They are telling us: `We're Americans. We feel for those who died. Our hearts go out to them.'

“Imam Qazwini said he explained to his children that the hatred that some displayed toward Muslims "is ignorance" and that the people who committed the crimes "are evil." Parents, he said, "should keep poised and quiet, patient and cautious.”

Nora Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New York, suggested talking to children about the love of God. "We would tell them that you are loved and cared about, just as Mommy and Daddy love you," she said.

The Catholic schools in New York were open, she said, because it was important for children to have as much normalcy in their lives as possible. "It is a healing technique," Ms. Murphy said. Rabbi Joy Levitt, the associate executive director for program at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, said she offered parents a few concrete suggestions.

"I think that children can be encouraged to write letters to the firefighters, thanking them for their bravery," she said. "My kids saw me go to give blood. We can try very hard in our own behavior to be kind to other people.

"Rabbi Levitt added: "We all want to know that there is still Godliness in the world. We want to feel like there is some stable moral foundation."

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Mental woes may surge after attacks

Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2001

An unprecedented number of Americans are at risk of depression and other mental disorders stemming from this month’s hijack attacks, according to health experts who told a Senate panel on Wednesday the health care system was ill prepared for the onslaught.

“VIRTUALLY NO one is unaffected,” said Dr. Spencer Eth of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, the closest trauma center to the World Trade Center.

“Live televised footage of unfolding events replayed and replayed have burned their images into the memories of the American people. Even the healthy have found themselves coping less effectively than usual,” he said.

Key senators said they would press the Bush administration to set aside more funding for crisis counseling and other programs to treat traumatized Americans. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said he hoped to pass legislation as early as Monday that would force many health plans to expand their mental health coverage.

At a Senate hearing on the psychological fallout of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, mental health experts said children, including the millions who experienced the tragedy through graphic television coverage, were particularly at risk of developing problems ranging from anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The unprecedented scope and magnitude of the ... terrorist attacks can be expected to generate unprecedented mental health consequences, distributed far more widely than in any disaster in American history,” Carol North, professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, told the Senate Health and Education Committee.

Older Americans are also at heightened risk because the attacks may resurrect traumatic memories of past horrors such as the Holocaust, according to Gary Kennedy, president-elect of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry.


Experts said most of these mental illnesses are treatable with medications and psychotherapy, but warned that the nation’s cash- strapped hospitals and clinics would not be able to keep pace with the demand.

“Without new investments, our current system will be unequipped to meet the profound needs,” Michael Faenza, president of the National Mental Health Association, warned.

According to a survey by the Pew Charitable Trust in the wake of the attacks, seven out of 10 Americans have felt depressed, nearly one in two had trouble concentrating, and one in three had trouble sleeping.

For most Americans, experts said these symptoms would not lead to lasting psychological problems.

“But for significant numbers of people, they could. And even those who will experience no long-term mental illness will benefit from reassurance and support,” Senate Health and Education Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said.

Since the attacks, which left nearly 7,000 people dead or missing, the Bush administration has freed up millions of dollars in federal funding for mental health services, particularly in New York and Washington.

Kennedy said a “significant part” of federal disaster relief funds should go to states and localities for counseling. He also warned private insurance companies against “skimping or rationing” mental health care.

Senate aides said Daschle hoped to call up legislation on Monday that would ensure greater parity in the coverage of mental health benefits.

Under the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat, and Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, group health plans would be barred from treating mental health benefits differently from the coverage of medical and surgical benefits.

The Congressional Budget Office said implementing the legislation would raise insurance premiums by about 1 percent.

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Schools struggle to help students understand terrorist attacks

Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2001
Publication:The Associated Press
Click here for the original article.

For students at J.P. Stevens High School in Edison, New Jersey, the terrorist attack that leveled the 110-story World Trade Center brought a special kind of fear. Many of the students' parents work in New York City.

So, the social studies teacher dropped everything and began talking about the tragic events as they unfolded on national television.

"He wanted to straighten out the facts, because he didn't want rumors," said Annie Kan, a freshman. "It was sort of stressful for some kids."

Teachers across the nation found themselves grasping for words Tuesday to reassure students that they were not in danger and try to explain the surreal attacks in New York City, and in Washington where a hijacked jetliner plowed into the Pentagon.

In suburban Howard County, Maryland, outside Washington D.C., Lynda Mitic, the principal at Centennial High School, took to the school's public address system and warned of "a national crisis." But she assured the students "we are confident that you are safe."

"I think that all of us felt very unsafe today," Mitic said in an interview. "It didn't matter where we were, because we didn't know if a plane was going to fall out of the sky."

Teachers across the country expressed the difficulty of reassuring their students.

"I honestly don't think that any of us is prepared to deal with the horrors that occurred today, whether we're parents or teachers," said Mary Reece, principal of Menlo Park Elementary School in Edison, a half-hour drive from the rubble that once was New York's tallest towers.

"It's not as if we can pull anything from our memory banks to deal with this kind of crisis," Reece continued. She said most likely someone in her school lost a loved one in the devastation.

A group of school children in Sarasota, Fla., learned of the attacks firsthand from President Bush, who was reading to students when an aide whispered the news into his ear.

As students returned to their classrooms Wednesday, Schools nationwide were preparing to counsel them.

"There are going to be a lot of angry kids, and we need to help them understand that it's O.K. to experience the anger, but not to act it out," said Susan Gorin, executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists. "As a country, we've never experienced this."

Gorin and others suggested that schools explain what happened as clearly as possible, providing only those details that seem appropriate to children at each age. They should also give students ample opportunity to ask questions -- sometimes the same questions, over and over again.

"They're trying to make sense out of a senseless situation," said Danny Mize, executive director of The Kids' Place, a support center for grieving children and families that grew out of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.

Several experts said schools should give students the chance to write or draw pictures about their feelings, whether on large message murals hung in a hallway or on individual pictures. "We shouldn't mask our feelings from the kids," Mize said. "If we're sad and crying, don't go off to a bedroom and then put on a brave face for the kids. We need them to know that we've been affected by it too."

Gorin said schools can help children by sending letters and pictures to victims' families. And, she said, teachers should try to get students back to their normal schedules as soon as possible.

Adults should also limit exposure to TV images of the attacks, Mize said. "We need to be aware that while we're getting all of those details, the kids are too," he said.

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Talk about it, counselors advise

Published: Tuesday, September 11, 2001
By:Helyn Trickey
Click here for the original article.

New York City schools worked feverishly Tuesday morning to evacuate students from the downtown area to safe locations in the north end of the city following an apparent air attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

"All children have been moved out of danger, and only their parents are being allowed to pick them up," New York City Board of Education representative Catie Marshall said in a phone interview.

That was exactly the right move to make, says psychologist and trauma specialist Dr. Patty White.

"The first thing we try to do is to stabilize the kids by taking them away from stimulus," she says.

White trains caregivers on the first line of defense -- those who typically arrive first on a disaster scene; policemen, firemen and paramedics among them -- to deal with children in a crisis. "We try to calm them down. We do introductions … and get them to talk about what is going on in their heads, White says in a phone interview from California. "It's very important that kids have the venue to talk immediately, but they should not be forced."

Reuniting kids with their families as soon as possible after a trauma is crucial, says Russell Sabella, associate professor of counseling at Florida Gulf Coast University. "You need to help them be in a place where they can calm down," he says.

The toughest questions

Next, a counselor, parent or teacher has to address the flood of questions and unpleasant emotions students may have following a traumatic incident, says Sabella.

"Kids are not mini-adults, but they are pretty sophisticated," says Sabella. "They may feel fear or feelings of inadequacy. They may ask questions like, 'How could this have happened? We are the most powerful nation on Earth. How could we have prevented this?'"

There are no easy answers to those questions. Sabella uses two rules when he advises counselors how to handle the toughest questions: Be truthful and honest.

"Bad things happen, and as much as we try to prevent them, they may happen anyway," he says.

Sabella urges adults to remind children that the world is still relatively safe, and events like the attacks in New York and Washington are still rare events.

White cautions adults to limit wild speculation and rumors about an unfolding disaster if youngsters are in earshot.

"Tell them you don't have all the information right now," she says. Instead, adults should be open and honest with children, letting them know there are no quick fixes and that the only thing you can do is stick together and reassure each other, she says.

Most important, say both Sabella and White, tell kids it is OK to be angry and sad.

"Sometimes our reactions take us aback," says White. "We are all sad and we are all wondering if this is going to happen to us. The feeling of being out of control is one of the worst things that can happen to a human being, and we need to give ourselves permission to react."

White says schools should be particularly aware of children's needs to talk about this tragedy now and in the weeks and months to come. She advises teachers, parents and counselors to emphasize what we do have in our favor: a strong military, strong international allies.

And most important, each other.

"Keep them in the moment," advises White. "Tell the kids that this is not a movie ... that this is irrevocable … but that life will go on. It won't be the same, but it will go on."

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Talking to children about violence and other sensitive and complex issues

Published: Friday, September 14, 2001
Click here for the original article.

Educators for Social Responsibility

Growing up has never been easy. It's especially difficult for young people in times of crisis. We owe it to our children to listen to what is on their minds, and in their hearts, and give them the best of our understanding and our guidance. Educators for Social Responsibility has prepared this guide for adults who are concerned about how to communicate with young people about difficult issues in their wider world.

This guide explores some of the questions that parents and teachers ask most frequently about having emotional discussions on topics such as the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado. We hope this helps you listen and respond to the concerns of the children you care about.

Should children watch coverage about tragedies such as the one in Littleton?

It depends on the age and maturity of the children. Parents may decide that some shows and topics are inappropriate. However, if children are going to watch programs about the event, we recommend that a parent or caregiver watch with them. Afterwards, talking together about reactions to the coverage and feelings about the event in general can help children make sense of a seemingly senseless tragedy.

How can I judge if a child is ready to talk about difficult events?

Most children from age four to five and above would appreciate talking with adults they trust. In the media there is daily discussion of various tragedies, and it is unlikely that children know nothing at all about them. However, it is quite likely that they have some confusion about the facts and the dangers, and that they have mistaken information, questions, and some strong feelings. Often children are hesitant to share their questions and fears with adults. For this reason, we recommend that adults open the way for children to talk about their concerns.

How do I open up the subject with children?

The key word here is LISTEN. Most experts agree that it is best NOT to open up a conversation with children by giving them a lecture - even an informal, introductory lecture -on the particular tragedy that is on the news. Don't burden children with information they may not be ready for. The best approach is to listen carefully to children's spontaneous questions and comments, and then respond to them in an appropriate, supportive way. Let children's concerns, in their own words, guide the direction of the discussion.

Won't it just scare children more if we talk about it?

No, not if you listen to children and respond in a supportive, sensitive way to what you hear. No matter how frightening some feelings are, it is far more frightening to think that no one is willing to talk about them. If we communicate by our silence that this - or any other subject - is too scary or upsetting to talk about then the children, who depend on us, may experience the added fear that we are not able to take care of them. Young children especially need to feel secure in the knowledge that the adults in their lives can manage difficult topics and deep feelings.

What if children never bring up the subject? Should I just wait or is there something I can do?

Some children may not bring things up because they are genuinely not concerned; others may never bring up the subject even if it's on their minds; some are afraid of upsetting their parents or teachers by bringing it up; while others are too overwhelmed by their feelings to open up a discussion. As adults we can at least try to assess how they are feeling in order to decide whether a discussion is appropriate.

Children who are troubled but have difficulty talking about their concerns may need special attention. It can be helpful if we gently start the conversation ourselves. In reference to Littleton, you might ask a simple opening question such as, "Do you ever think about what happened in the high school in Colorado?" or, "How do you feel about what happened?" or, "What have you heard about the event in Colorado?" No matter what their response is, we need to listen - carefully and with care - to what our children have to say.

It feels so passive just to listen. Is it appropriate to tell children how I feel?

There are several pitfalls in sharing feelings about particular tragedies outright with children. A serious one is that we might burden them with our adult concerns, raising new questions and fears for them, rather than helping them deal with questions and fears they already have. Another is that we might cut off the expression of what's on their minds and in their hearts as we get wrapped up in expressing what's on ours and miss hearing what children want to tell us. We might simply find ourselves talking over their heads, answering questions that weren't asked, providing information that isn't useful, satisfying OUR need to "give" our children something rather than satisfying THEIR need to be heard and understood. We wouldn't want to communicate the message that what THEY have to say is not important.

This is not to say, however, that we need to be passive -good listening is a very active process. After we've listened carefully, it may then be appropriate for us to respond in ways that provide assurance that the adults in their lives care and are trying to promote peace. We may also want to say that we share some of the same feelings and remind children that we'll be together during these difficult times.

How can I listen to children in the most effective and helpful way?

As you listen to children, show that you are interested and attentive. Try to understand what they are saying from THEIR point of view. Don't make judgments about what they say no matter how silly or illogical it may sound to you at first. If you don't understand something, ask them to explain it. Show your respect for them and their ideas.

As parents, teachers and caregivers know, children are not always able to express what they mean or what they feel, and what they say

doesn't always mean the same thing for them as it does for adults. Sometimes it takes a bit of gentle probing to find out what's going on behind the initial words they utter. Comments such as, "That's interesting, can you tell me more about it?" or, "What exactly do you mean by that...?" are examples of ways to elicit more information from children without judging the rightness or wrongness of what they are saying.

If they seem to be struggling to make something clear, it can be particularly useful and reassuring to have you help them summarize and focus their concerns. For example, you might say, "It sounds to me as if you have heard some horrible stories about the effects of the shooting in Colorado and you want to know if they're true." Clarifying questions and statements help children sort out their ideas and feelings without interfering with their thinking process.

Good listening also involves paying very careful attention to the things children may NOT be saying. Be aware of their nonverbal messages -facial expressions, fidgeting, gestures, posture, tone of voice, or others -which indicate that strong emotions may be present.

It is reassuring to children to have adults acknowledge that their feelings are okay. A comment such as, "You seem sad when we talk about this. I think I know how you feel because I feel sad too,Ð tells a child that the feelings are not only normal and understandable, but also that you have similar feelings and are still able to cope.

What if children don't want to talk about these issues?

If you ask good opening questions and the child clearly isn't interested in talking about certain issues, then don't push. Again, it's important for us to communicate to children our respect for how they feel. This extends to respecting their right NOT to talk about something they don't feel ready to talk about. There are some children who simply aren't concerned about these things and there's no reason to force them into this awareness.

Some children are reluctant to talk about tragedies because their feelings of fear and confusion overwhelm them, or because they don't feel confident that adults will be able to hear their concerns and respond to them in a way that makes sense. Adolescents may be more reluctant to talk if they perceive their parents and/or teachers having different opinions. They may think that the adults in their lives will try to impose their beliefs on them. These young people need to know that the doors to communication are open when they are ready. One way to let them know this might be to say something like, "Are kids talking about what happened in Colorado? I'd be really interested in hearing about what you and your friends think. Let me know if you want to talk."

Be aware of signals young children send out through their play, their drawing and writing, their spontaneous conversation, and other ways they might communicate about their preoccupations. Young children often use their play to work out what they are hearing, and observing them as they play can give us important clues about their thoughts and feelings. Similarly, if you observe children drawing one violent scene after another, overhear conversations where they seem unnaturally concerned with violence and hopelessness, if your children seem in any way preoccupied with images of destruction, then it is appropriate for you to let them know that you have noticed this and that you wonder what it means. Use your own judgment, and LISTEN attentively to what they have to say.

Once you have really listened to what is on children's minds, you will be in a far better position to respond to them.

How do I deal with the different emotions that children may have about these issues?

It is natural and healthy for there to be a wide range of emotions about any particular tragedy. Some children will be sad, anxious and even fearful for their own family's safety, others will be confused about how to make sense of the events, and others will have little reaction. Some will respond with excitement and anticipation, while others will have a mix of emotions - fear, sorrow, and worry, for example.

Deep feelings are not atypical for children trying to come to terms with death and suffering and the reasons that people resort to violence. It is our role as adults to help them explore these feelings.

The feelings children have will generally be attached to the developmental issues that are most pressing for them. For early elementary school children it will usually be issues of separation and safety. For older elementary and middle school children it will be issues of fairness and care for others. For adolescents it will often involve the ethical dilemmas posed by the situation.

Listening closely and discerning what some underlying issues might be will help your responses be more productive. In some areas, such as concerns for personal safety, we can provide reassurance, while in other areas our role should be that of a listener. Listening in and of itself can be reassuring to children.

Bringing closure to discussions of feelings is sometimes difficult. Rather than trying to summarize or falsely reassure children, it is best to simply thank them for sharing so deeply and affirm how much they care about others and the world around them. You can express that it is this caring that makes you proud and gives you strength and hope.

After I have listened to children's concerns, how do I respond? Should I give them facts?

It is best not to jump in and tell children everything we think or know about the particular situation, even after we have heard what's on their minds. Nevertheless, there are a number of helpful responses we can make. Whatever our response, it is important that we provide reassurance to the children we care about.

First, we can respond to the obvious items of misinformation that they have picked up and help them distinguish fantasy from reality. When we have listened to what they think and feel, we can gently correct their misinformation by statements about what happened in Littleton like, "By the way, it isn't true that this has happened in lots of other schools."

We can also answer children's direct questions in simple and straightforward terms. A child who asks, "How did the children die?" or, "What does pipe bombs mean?" deserves a factual answer. If you think there is more to the question than is first apparent -underlying confusions or unexpressed anxiety -then ask for an explanation of where the question came from and then listen carefully. Keep your responses brief and simple. Follow the lead of children's questions and give no more information than is asked for. Going off on one's own tangent is an easy trap for adults to fall into when answering a child's questions.

The answers to some questions that children ask are not clear and straightforward. When children ask such questions as, "Why did these boys do this?" we can explain that some people think one way about it and others think another. It is important for children to hear that there are differences of opinion and different ways of seeing the conflict.

Finally, we can give our children the opportunity to continue to explore their questions and to learn from this conflict. For instance, war play is a common phenomenon among young boys, and it is natural for them to use it to further explore and work out what they are hearing in regard to a violent situation. One of the most effective ways for older children to learn is for them to pursue their own questions through talking with others, and reading various viewpoints and perspectives on an event or issue. We can keep the channels of communication open with them by paying attention to their questions and supporting their exploration.

For older children and adolescents, the Littleton crisis and others raise important issues about the ethics of violence, the ways conflicts are best resolved, and insuring school security. For adolescents concerned about their own potential involvement, it raises questions about their own options and choices. These are important issues for young people to talk about and think through with adults they trust.

At the same time, young people can derive hope by learning about conflict resolution and developing concrete skills in resolving conflict nonviolently. This is an opportunity for them to explore alternative means of resolving conflicts and ways that, even when a conflict becomes violent, people continue to work toward its resolution. In addition, it would be valuable for them to think about how they may pursue a constructive response that promotes peace and security in their schools and neighborhoods.

I have strong opinions about what happened. Should I share my beliefs with children?

Because the opinions of adults in a child's life carry such weight (especially with younger children), we recommend that you focus on what the child is thinking and feeling. Stating an opinion, especially in the early stages of discussion, can block open communication by preventing children, who hold different opinions, from openly sharing and discussing them for fear of disapproval. Since most older children are aware of their parents' opinions anyway, it is perhaps more important to help children to think critically about many points of view and arrive at their own well thought-out conclusions.

However, it is important to communicate to children the value of hearing other points of view and respecting the people who hold them. Helping children understand that the issue of violence, for example, is a complex one allows them to feel that their opinions can make a contribution to our understanding of the issue. We recommend that you stress the importance of their examining a variety of points of view, as well as your own, and their learning to appreciate what each has to offer.

Difference of opinion can be very healthy, and something that both adults and children can learn from. Often, however, these differences degenerate into unproductive arguments where both the adult and child become entrenched even more in their positions. Constructive dialogue begins with a good deal of listening and a sincere effort to understand what the other person is saying, and why he or she sees it as valid. It is important to avoid statements that categorically diminish the adolescent's opinions such as "When you grow up you'll understand that..." or "You don't know what you're talking about." Instead, restate what the child has said to make sure you understand it. Listen carefully to the child's point of view, and ask questions to help him or her clarify it. Rather than countering those statements, with which you disagree, ask questions that can help you understand the child's perspective.

There are respectful ways of disagreeing which you can model by stating your disagreements in the form of, "I experience things differently. I think that..." rather than telling the child that he or she is wrong. The goal, after all, is not to dictate opinions to children, but rather to help them make their own reasoned decisions about controversial issues. Finally, help your child understand that a person's opinions can change, and that a decision reached today might be different tomorrow with the addition of new ideas and information.

How can I talk with children if I feel that my own grasp of the facts and issues is inadequate?

Fortunately, we don't need to be experts in order to listen to children. The questions of very young children seldom require complicated technical answers. When older children ask for information we don't have, it is fine to say something like, "That's an interesting question, and I don't know the answer. Let's find out together." The process of figuring out where to get the information, and going through the steps to obtain it, can be a powerfully reassuring experience for children, especially when a trusted adult participates with them. In a small but significant way, this experience can demonstrate for young people that there are orderly ways to go about solving problems and that the world is not beyond our understanding. If a child's questions don't lend themselves to this kind of research process, it is equally effective to say something like, "I don't know the answer to that and I'm not sure anyone does. I do know, however, that many good thinkers throughout the world are working hard to understand this issue."

How can I reassure and comfort children when I honestly don't feel hopeful myself?

On one hand, it is certainly appropriate for adults to acknowledge that they, too, are concerned about the state of the world. On the other hand, we must not impose our feelings on children. If you really believe that your own concerns may be overwhelming to the children in your life, then you might seek out an adult support system for yourself. This might be a group of other adults with similar feelings who need to share and discuss their concerns and questions. If a support group isn't practical, then you might find a competent, caring individual to talk with to sort out your feelings. It then becomes easier to offer genuine help to children.

What can I say that is both comforting and reassuring?

Just by listening to children you are providing reassurance. By your ability to hear calmly, even their wildest concerns, you communicate that their fears are not too frightening to deal with. By trying to understand children, you communicate that their feelings are neither abnormal nor silly, and you communicate the reassurance that they do not have to be alone with their concerns.

You can also help children find a way to step out of their position of powerlessness. You can tell them honestly that their concerns are quite healthy because people's concern is the first step toward doing something to make the world safer, and that the most effective antidote to anxiety, fear or powerlessness is action. Engage them in a conversation about the way in which their school is working to make it a more peaceful place and explore ways in which they might be an active part of the effort to create a peaceful community in their school, home and neighborhood.

What if a child is fascinated by a particular tragic event?

Due to the way these events are often portrayed in the media, it is natural for some children to be fascinated and, at times, excited by it. Preadolescent boys, especially, may have a fascination with some of the violence.

The reporting of violence, sometimes takes on the tone of a sports event, and the language used in public discourse is often highly sanitized. As a result, some children may not be sensitive to the human suffering created by tragedies, or the sadness and anxiety other children experience as a result. We need to help them see the other dimensions of the issue - the ones that are not being reported.

There are age appropriate ways to help children see the human and environmental consequences for all sides, and the complexity of the issues involved.

What if children seem to have excessive fears that seem to be focused on the tragedy? (nightmares, obsession with violence, and weapons, etc.)

Deep feelings of sadness, anxiety, and confusion are not atypical for children trying to come to terms with death and suffering and the reasons that people resort to violence. Children with "extreme" concerns need to be listened to and understood the same way that children with "normal" concerns do. It may be more difficult for the adults closest to them to help them put their strong feelings into words. When children are troubled and their parents and teachers have difficulty helping them sort the trouble out - no matter what the issue - it may make sense to seek professional help. The problem may be as simple as untangling a particularly frightening bit of misinformation. But, if you have doubts about what a child's fears mean, or how to help the child deal with them, we strongly encourage you to consult a counselor or other professional trained in this area.

If a close family member or friend has been involved in the tragedy directly, how can I reassure children and help allay their fears? You will want to watch for signs of significant increases in anxiety, distraction, fear, or hopelessness, and know where you can go for additional help in your area. Support groups are often formed for adults and children whose family members are involved in a crisis. Sometimes crisis is a trigger that reminds children of another crisis closer to home. Your school may need to form a group with children who are feeling stronger anxiety. Again, there are many professionals who are now available to help parents, teachers and children.

For many children fear and anxiety will come and go, and for some, the anxiety and fear can be more constant. There are no easy ways to allay their fears. However, it is important to maintain the normal family or classroom routines and schedules as much as possible, and to listen in the supportive ways we've suggested in this guide.

Validate children's feelings and keep the channels of communication open. It will also help to provide reassurance through positive and hopeful comments such as, "There are a lot of people working to keep our schools and neighborhoods safe," or "People are working very hard to help all the families involved." Finally, when you are talking with children, especially young children, give them details about this friend or family member. Continue to make the person real and present for them by talking about him or her.

If young people want to do something about particular events, such as the one in Colorado, is it appropriate to encourage them to act? What, realistically, can adolescents do?

Situations, like the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, can be distressing ones for young people. Sometimes simply knowing the facts can lead to anxiety, fear, and powerlessness. One way to help young people overcome these feelings is to engage them in taking actions that make a difference. There are many actions young people can take, and possibly the most important one is to learn more about the issue. From there, however, it is important that young people learn to act to make a difference in their own worlds first. They can set up study groups with friends, organize a town meeting in their school or community to talk with others about their concerns or questions, put together a library shelf of books on the issue, or express their point of view in a letter to the editor. They can also join with adults or other young people who are participating in a wide variety of ways, such as fund raising for the school mediation program.

However, it is important that the children generate and implement the actions THEY choose to pursue. Although it may be helpful for children to know the range of things that other children and adults are doing to make a difference, adults must remember not to enlist young people in their own causes. Because young people know about a particular issue, it does not mean that it is their sole responsibility to solve the problem. They need to see adults actively engaged in solutions as well.

What can I, as a parent, do if my children want to learn more about the roots of violence?

Begin by talking with your child's teacher, the principal of the school, or the PTA. You may also want to talk with the parents of other children in the class. It may be helpful to begin by setting up discussion groups of parents and teachers in the school, or to set up an evening PTA meeting. You may also want to request resource materials from such organizations as Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) that could be helpful to teachers and administrators in introducing the idea of teaching conflict resolution in their school with their students.

What can schools, in cooperation with families and community, do?

Schools can help in a number of important ways. Above all else they can provide a safe, caring, and supportive environment for children to talk with each other about their thoughts and feelings. This helps children understand that they are not alone and that there are caring adults and other young people who share their concerns. Providing a caring network both at home and at school is reassuring to children and supports a normal level of functioning.

Secondly, schools can help young people overcome the sense of powerlessness that often arises in this kind of situation. Young people have many questions about violence and conflict in the world. Helping them pursue answers to these questions and helping them learn more about ways they can deal with conflict creatively is empowering to young people. They gain confidence in their ability to understand what is going on around them, to acquire information from a variety of sources, to appreciate divergent perspectives, and to learn about complex issues.

One of the most effective ways to involve young people of all ages in this exploration is to ask them to brainstorm:

(1) what they already know about the issues at hand,
(2) what they think they know but they are not sure about, and
(3) what questions they have about it. After prioritizing their questions, the class can engage in interviews and readings.

Thirdly, schools can help prevent the emergence of dehumanization, prejudice, stereotyping, and victimization of any group. Schools can help young people manage their emotions, resolve conflict, and interrupt prejudice. But even more important, they can demonstrate ways that children can support each other and respect each other's backgrounds and perspectives. By helping young people understand the human consequences of violence in any form, schools can help them become more sensitive to other people's feelings and points of view.

Finally, young people's questions about these issues come up over and over again, even after the tragedy ends. Children process their feelings and thoughts over time. Therefore it is helpful to think about some long term goals.

CREDITS: This guide, published by Educators for Social Responsibility was adapted by Linda Lantieri in cooperation with Sheila Rothenberg from, Talking About War in the Persian Gulf written by Sheldon Berman and Susan Jones in consultation with Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Linda Lantieri, Diane Levin, Carol Lieber, Rachel Poliner, Tom Roderick, and the staff of Educators for Social Responsibility, 23 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, (617) 492-1764.

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Talking to kids about war

Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2001
Publication:About Kids
By:Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D.
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Kids ask lots of tough questions but questions about war are some of the hardest to answer. Especially when the news provides immediate and graphic details, parents wonder if they should protect their children from the grim reality, explore the topic, or share their personal beliefs. Professionals may wonder how much information to provide or how to help children if they are confused or troubled. And all adults must reconcile the dilemma of advocating non-violence while explaining why nations maintain armies and engage in war. This guide helps answer some common questions and concerns parents and professionals have about talking to children about war.

How do children react to news about war?
Children's age and individual personality influence their reactions to stories they hear and images they see about war in the newspapers and on television. With respect to age, preschool age children may be the most upset by the sights and sounds they see and hear. Children this age confuse facts with their fantasies and fear of danger and can easily be overwhelmed. They do not yet have the ability to keep things in perspective and may be unable to block out troubling thoughts. School age children can certainly understand the difference between fantasy and reality but may have trouble keeping them separate at certain times. Therefore they may equate a scene from a scary movie with news footage and thus think that the news events are worse than they really are. They also may not realize a single incident is rebroadcast and so may think many more people are involved than is the case. In addition, the graphic and immediate nature of news make it seem as if the conflict is close to home - perhaps around the corner. Middle school and high school age children may be interested and intrigued by the politics of a situation and feel a need to take a stand or action. They may show a desire to be involved in political or charitable activities related to the war.

In addition to age and maturity, children's personality style and temperament can influence their response. Some children are naturally more prone to be fearful and thus news of a dangerous situation may heighten their feelings of anxiety. Some children or teens may be more sensitive to, or knowledgeable about, the situation if they are the same nationality of those who are fighting. Children who know someone involved in the conflict or area may be especially affected by events.

Children and teens will also personalize the news they hear, relating it to events or issues in their own lives. Young children are usually most concerned about separation from parents, about good and bad, and fears of punishment. They may ask questions about the children they see on the news who are alone or bring up topics related to their own good and bad behavior. Middle school children are in the midst of peer struggles and are developing a mature moral outlook. Concerns about fairness and punishment will be more prevalent among this age group. Teens consider larger issues related to ethics, politics, and even their own involvement in a potential war through the armed services. Teenagers, like adults, may become reflective about life, re-examining their priorities and interests.

At the other extreme, some children become immune to, or ignore, the suffering they see in the news. They can get overloaded and become numb due to the repetitive nature of the reports. Exposure to multiple forms of violence, such as video games, makes it more difficult to believe in, and understand the real human cost of tragedies. Parents and professionals should be on the lookout for children's extreme solutions based on what they have seen in movies. A macho or impulsive response is ill advised and should be put into the context of the real conflict.

How can I tell what a child is thinking or feeling about the war?
It is not always possible to judge if or when children are scared or worried about news they hear. Children may be reluctant to talk about their fears or may not be aware of how they are being affected by the news. Parents can look for clues as to how their child is reacting. War play is not necessarily an indication of a problem. It is normal for children to play games related to war and this may increase in response to current events as they actively work with the information, imitate, act out, or problem solve different scenarios. Regressive behaviors; when children engage in behaviors expected of a younger age child, overly aggressive or withdrawn behaviors, nightmares, or an obsession about war may indicate extreme reactions needing closer attention.

Addressing a child's particular, personal fears is also necessary. Parents should not make assumptions about what worries their child. Parents are often surprised by a child's concerns, e.g. worrying about being shot while at Sunday school, or refusing to go on a boat ride after seeing a ship get attacked.

How should I talk to children about war?
Contrary to parents' fears, talking about war will not increase a child's fear. Having children keep scared feelings to themselves is more damaging than open discussion. As with other topics, consider the age and level of understanding of the child when entering into a discussion about war. Even children as young as 4 or 5 know about war but all children may not know how to talk about their concerns. It is often necessary for parents to initiate the dialogue themselves. Asking children what they have heard or think is a good way to start. Parents should refrain from lecturing or teaching about the issues until there has been some exploration about what is most important, confusing, or troublesome to the child. Adults should look for opportunities as they arise, for example when watching the news together. You can also look for occasions to bring up the topic of when relevant related topics arise. For example, when people in a television show are arguing. Discussion about larger issues such as tolerance, difference, and non-violent problem solving can also be stimulated by war related news. Learning about a foreign culture or region also dispels myths and more accurately points out similarities and differences.

Far off war events can stimulate a discussion of non-violent problem solving for problems closer to home. For instance helping children negotiate how to share toys or take turns in the baseball lineup demonstrates productive strategies for managing differences. Older children may understand the issues when related to a community arguing over a proposed shopping mall.

Effective ways of working out these more personal situations can assist in explaining and examining the remote war related situations.

Adults should also respect a child's wish not to talk about particular issues until ready. Attending to nonverbal reactions, such as facial expression or posture, play behavior, verbal tone, or content of a child's expression offer important clues to a child's reactions and unspoken need to talk.

Answering questions and addressing fears does not necessarily happen all at once in one sit down session or one history lesson plan. New issues may arise or become apparent over time and thus discussion about war should be done on an ongoing and as needed basis.

Should I let a child watch television or read about the war?
Parents and professionals can assume the majority of children have access to information or hear about current events that are making the news. However, understanding the child's age and personality style determines how much direct access adults should provide. Watching, reading, or examining the news together is the best way to gauge a child's reaction and to help a child or teen deal with the information. In discussing what is viewed or heard when together, parents and professionals become informed about how the children processed the material and how they feel about it. It also provides a ready forum for discussing the topic of war and violence. Correcting misinformation and discussing personal feelings is then more profitable.

Should I tell my child my opinion?
Wars provide a perfect opportunity to discuss the issues of prejudice, stereotyping and aggression and nonviolent ways to handle situations. Unfortunately it is easy to look for and assign blame, in part to make a situation understandable and feel it was preventable. Adults must monitor their own communications, being careful to avoid making generalizations about groups of individuals. This dehumanizes the situation. Open, honest discussion is recommended. But adults must be mindful of stating their opinions as fact or absolutes. Discussions should allow for disagreement and airing of different points of view. Feeling their opinion is wrong or misunderstood can cause children to disengage from dialogue or make them feel they are bad or stupid. In discussing how war often stems from interpersonal conflict, misunderstanding, or differences in religion or culture, it is important to model tolerance. Accepting and understanding others' opinions is a necessary step in nonviolent conflict resolution.

Distinguishing between patriotism and opinion can be helpful. One can disagree with a cause or action but still believe in the right to have arms or feel it is important to defend a country. The manner in which issues are resolved is separate from one's allegiance or personal beliefs.

How can I reassure a child?
Don't dismiss a child's fears. Children can feel embarrassed or criticized when their fears are minimized. Exploring the issues and positive ways of coping help children master their fear and anxiety. Parents and professionals can reassure children with facts about how people are protected (for example, by police men in the community or the president who meets with world leaders) and individual safety measures that can be taken (for example, reinforcing the importance of talking to an adult when bullied). Avoiding "what if" fears by offering reliable, honest information is best. Maintaining routines and structure is also reassuring to children and helps normalize an event and restore a sense of safety.

What should I do if we know someone in the war?
Having a personal relationship with someone in the war or area of conflict can cause additional particularly troubling feelings. When a friend or relative is involved in a traumatic newsworthy event others often search for information. It is advisable to find the most reliable information source and filter out both the quantity and quality of the potentially inaccurate news provided to the general public. Having accurate information informs one of the best way to communicate with the person and the possibility of sending aid. Taking things one step at a time, being realistic about what is known rather than preparing for the worst can be difficult but helpful. Imagining the worst does not prevent it from happening and can turn an unpredictable situation into an unnecessarily bleak one. Obtaining support from others in a similar situation by sharing information or feelings helps some people feel less alone and validates their distressing feelings. Adults can share their fears but must manage their own distraught reactions so as not to scare their children or students. Engaging in some normal activities of life, especially for eating, sleeping, school and work provides stability and predictability at a time when events make life seem confusing.

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Talking to our kids about terrorism

Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2001
Publication:Child Care Exchange
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The terrorist acts in the USA yesterday are just another reminder of the violence to which children around the world are exposed all too frequently. Aaron T. Ebata, Ph.D. from the Department of Human & Community Development at the University of Illinois Extension, offers this advice to those who care for young children.

Yesterday's events will certainly be in news for quite some time, and many of our lives may be disrupted in different ways for a long time. As many of us watch the news and talk to others about the day's events, our children will certainly notice that something is going on. Parents may want to talk with older children about the day's events and what it might mean, but young children (under the age of 7 or 8) may be disturbed by witnessing scenes of destruction on television or by listening in on adult conversations. It may not be unusual if some young children react by being more clinging, seeming a bit more concerned, or having difficulty at bedtime.

Although it might be important to allow older children to participate in viewing and talking about the news, it might be wise to limit young children's exposure to TV news.

It is important that young children be reassured about their own safety and the safety of their parents and loved ones. Subtle changes in parent's moods and behaviors can have an affect on children especially if they witness reactions in their parents that they have not seen before.

Be prepared to spend extra time with children if necessary, and continue normal routines and activities.

Use the opportunity to explain how and why people are reacting the way they are.

In the days that come, we may be witness to preparations for retaliation (or at least threats of retaliation). Certain groups of people may be identified as terrorists. It will be a challenge for all of us to remind ourselves and our children that we value peace.

For more information and suggestions on how to talk with your children about the day's events and the events in the coming days, see:

Talking to Kids About War
New York University Child Study

Talking About Conflict and War
The Learning Network

Talking with Children about War - Pointers for Parents
The Learning Network

Talking with Kids about the News
Children Now

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Terrorism and our children

Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2001
Publication:National Association for the Education of Young Children

As all of us struggle to deal with the tragic and terrible events of September 11, it's important to recognize how young children may be especially affected by these terrorist acts. Parents and others who care for young children need to provide comfort, reassurance and stability.

When children witness violent events, directly or on television, the result is often fear and confusion. Not only can the sudden and unexpected nature of many disasters cause high anxiety and even panic, but young children are also most fearful when they do not understand what is happening around them. Their feelings and reactions should be expected and considered natural.

Helping children deal with their reactions to this disaster can be challenging when adults haven't had adequate time to deal with their own reactions, but adults should remember that children are very perceptive, and will quickly recognize the fear and anxiety that adults are experiencing.

The following strategies can help parents and other adults give children the emotional support they need, and show them that you are there to take care of them.

Give reassurance and physical comfort.

Physically holding children brings comfort and a sense of security. Children need extra hugs, smiles and hand-holding. Reassure them that they are safe and that there is someone there to take care of them. Hearing a family member or a teacher say, "I will take care of you," makes children feel safe. Young children have great faith in adults' powers and are responsive to adult reassurances. Model and demonstrate coping skills, because children will imitate adults in reacting to the situation.

Provide structure.

Children need to find consistency and security in their day, especially when the rest of their life is unpredictable. Provide a framework that will be the same from day to day. Emphasize familiar routines at playtime, clean-up, naptime, meals and bedtime. Make sure children are getting appropriate sleep, exercise and nutrition. Play soothing music and model moving slowly and using a quiet voice. Children may have a difficult time accepting routines and other limits, but persevere by being firm and supportive. Make decisions for children when they cannot cope with choice.

Welcome children's talking about the disaster.

Children regain a sense of control by talking about things that bother them, and talking with a supportive adult can help them clarify their feelings. At the same time, children should not be pressured to talk; they may need time to absorb these experiences before discussing them. To help children feel comfortable, parents and other adults can share their own feelings of fear and anxiety, but they should always do so in a calm, reassuring way. For example, you might say, "I was frightened when I saw the explosions, but I knew there were people who were ready to help out." What children need most is to feel that the situation is under control.

Focus on experiences that help children release tension.

*Give children more time for the relaxing, therapeutic experience of playing with sand, water, clay and playdough.

*Provide plenty of time and opportunity for children to work out their concerns and feelings through dramatic play. Create props that children can use to pretend they are firefighters, doctors, rescue workers or other helpers. In dramatic play, children can pretend that they are big and strong to gain control over their trauma and to overcome feelings of helplessness.

*Spend more time in settings that give children opportunities for physical activity and that provide an emotional release.

Model peaceful resolution to conflict.

Peaceful resolution to conflict is one way to give children a stronger sense of power and control, especially critical in the wake of a disaster, which leaves them feeling powerless. Because children who have experienced the emotional trauma and violence of disaster often behave aggressively, they need to see alternatives to using violence to solve problems.

Maintain perspective.

As we learn more about the individuals who are responsible for these tragic events, adults must help children avoid making inappropriate assumptions and using labels about groups of people based on their race, ethnicity, religious background or national origin.

Watch for changes in behavior.

Mental health professionals suggest that, children, like adults, may exhibit symptoms of stress following a disaster. For preschoolers, such symptoms may include thumbsucking, bedwetting, clinging, changes in sleep or eating patterns, and isolation from other children. Older children may be irritable or aggressive and display poor concentration, among other changes in their behavior. Experts also suggest that it is natural for children to display behavioral changes as they emotionally process their anxiety and fear.

NAEYC has several other resources on our Web site that may be helpful for parents and others who work with young children:

Discussing the News with 3- to 7-Year-Olds: What to Do?

Helping Children Cope with Violence

Additional helpful sites on the Web include:

American Academy of Pediatrics

"Helping Children Deal with Scary News" from Mr. Rogers/Family Communications, Inc.

National Association of School Psychologists

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