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Be upfront with children, experts say

By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2003

Rachel Rosen, age 10, was out with her father and family friends when the news came on the radio.

She knew something was wrong, because the adults "got real quiet."

Then Rachel got scared.

"I thought it was near me, and I was going to die or something," she said.

Once Rachel found out more, she wasn't scared, but she was still sad.

But Rachel has an advantage in coping with the news of the Columbia disaster. Her mother, Janet Rosen, is the guidance counselor at Perkins Elementary School in St. Petersburg. Rosen and other counseling experts gave advice Saturday on what to say to children about the tragedy:

Don't pretend it didn't happen. It's better that children hear the news from parents than on TV or from other kids. Even young kids will realize something bad happened.

"Children are incredibly adept at picking up the parental mood," said Dr. Mark Cavitt, director of pediatric psychiatry services at All Children's Hospital. "They will sense that Mom or Dad is upset."

It's okay to let your kids see that you're sad. "It's important that children feel their parents are being honest with them and not hiding things," Cavitt said.

Limit the TV. Too much TV news can upset children more, counselors said. Young children, especially, may not understand that the repeated images are the same event, not another explosion.

"The best thing parents can do is turn it off and do something else," said Pat Gray, guidance counselor at Seminole Elementary School.

Take your cue from your kids. Some will want just the basics. Others will have lots of questions.

"You shouldn't push information on them that they're not ready to absorb," said psychologist Bob Friedman, chair of the University of South Florida's department of child and family studies.

Let them talk about their own feelings. Tell them it's okay to feel scared or sad.

For some children, the news may bring back grief about losing a loved one or fear from Sept. 11. It might help them to talk with a counselor or minister.

Reassure them that they and their family members are safe. Children may feel anxious about leaving parents or going to bed alone.

"We can't assure them nothing bad will happen," Janet Rosen said. "We can assure them that their parents love them and are there to take care of them."

As for Rachel Rosen, a Perkins fifth-grader, she has her own advice for parents:

"They should tell their kids that they'll be okay, and sometimes things like this happen, and they'll be all right," Rachel said. "And that the people who were there were very brave."

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