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Child experts recommend being honest, reassuring with your kids

Children need not know all the details but should be reassured that they are safe.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 13, 2001

Mary Sinclair was putting her 4-year-old daughter Aimee to bed Tuesday night when the girl surprised her with a question.

"What are you watching on TV?"

The 44-year-old St. Petersburg resident could see her daughter was a little anxious. She told her gently, "We're all a little sad because some bad men hurt a lot of people today."

She also told her daughter she could add the hurt people to her prayers.

"Sometimes she's more aware of our feelings than we realize," Sinclair said. "She picked up that I was worried."

As horrific images of New York and Washington are flashed on television, psychologists and other experts say it's important to set children at ease and to not ignore the tragedy, whether they are toddlers or teenagers.

Younger children need not be told all the horrific details. But experts said Wednesday that parents should reassure them that their own world is safe.

"Terrorists are the new bogeyman," said Lennis Echterling, a clinical psychologist at James Madison University in Virginia. "If kids hear a plane, some might now be scared it's going to crash into them. Their worlds are small, and they interpret events in terms of their own safety."

Echterling recommended that parents keep a calm front, especially before younger children, and be honest. Ignoring the subject only risks a child hearing it from others, perhaps at school among playmates, he said.

He also suggested telling younger children that they are safe and that others are caring for the injured they may see on television.

A child might be most concerned about children who lost a parent.

"That's the time for parents to realistically reassure children that people are looking out for those children, too. And people are doing their best to rescue those folks still in debris," Echterling said.

At the same time, Echterling said, the discussion should be kept on a level that the child understands.

Jonathan Greenstein, a clinical psychologist at Tampa Children's Hospital, said parents should work at telling children, especially those under 12 or 13 years old, that this week's attacks are unprecedented.

"That's the one thing I told my own 8-year-old: Nothing quite like this has happened in our lifetimes before," he said. "I told her there's a chance it will never happen again because everyone's going to be real careful with security."

In schools and homes there is plenty of discussion about how to limit what a child sees on TV and reads in the newspaper, especially when images are so horrific.

Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg sent a letter home to parents Tuesday saying it was "careful with the information shared at school" with students because events can be extremely upsetting.

Greenstein said it's a good idea to limit, not eliminate, television for children.

"If you have a 7-year-old," he said, "you want to use the same judgment as you might in letting them use a violent video game."

Parents can watch for danger signs that might point to a child having difficulty coping. Those range from difficulty sleeping to being distracted at school. In such cases, parents can seek professional help, perhaps through school.

How adults can help kids cope

Experts on children offer these tips for helping children cope with this week's attack:

Show calm and control; worried adults worry children.

Reassure children that they and the important adults in their lives are safe.

Explain that trustworthy people are helping those in need.

Let kids talk about their feelings and tell them it's okay to be upset.

Tell children the truth. Don't pretend events haven't happened or aren't serious.

Keep explanations appropriate for age and maturity of the children.

Maintain a normal routine for dinner, homework, chores and bedtime, but don't be inflexible.

Spend extra time reading or playing quiet games with children before bed. This fosters a sense of closeness, security and normalcy.

Find out what resources your child's school has.

-- The National Association of School Psychologists

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