The September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon left indelible, traumatic images in the minds of Americans, including many of America's children. Here are some basic recommendations from a developmental-behavioral pediatrics perspective to help families deal with their children's experiences of the terrorist attack.
How children understand world events depends, of course, on their age and stage of development. Pre-school aged children won't understand the meaning of the terrorist attacks. They will, however, understand the emotional reaction that adults have and may ask, for instance, why mommy or daddy is crying, sad or upset. School age children can understand that an attack occurred, that 'bad' people flew airplanes into buildings to hurt 'good' people and may ask for reassurance and/or a simple explanation as to why this happened. Pre-adolescents and adolescent aged children may have quite sophisticated responses to the event and want to share complex feelings about personal fears, issues of morality, justice, national and world politics, and so on.
Regardless of stage of development, the first and most important adult response is to reassure children and help them to feel safe and secure. Given what they may have seen on television or read in the news, children need to know that the odds of being harmed by a terrorist action are extremely remote even though it may feel threatening. Children should not be allowed to watch the footage of traumatic events over and over as this can have emotionally traumatic effects or, paradoxically, desensitize children to the horror. An adult attitude that says 'TV was scary but what you saw on TV is not going to happen here. You are safe here at home." will go a long way to helping children feel safe and secure. It's fine for parents to be more certain than they feel.
But, reassurance about safety will not necessarily remove all fears (parents' fears included!). So the second thing parents need to do is find out how their children feel. Children at any age may show how they feel and not be able to talk about it. Their drawings or play might reflect aggressive themes; their sleep might be disturbed and they might have nightmares; they might seem more clingy and insecure. Parents and adult caretakers should be on the lookout for these more indirect expressions of emotional upset. Older children could have similar symptoms of withdrawal, fatigue, change in routine or sleep disturbance but they are more likely to verbally express feelings of fear and insecurity. Simply asking adolescents what they think or how they feel about the terrorist attack and letting them know that it's OK to talk about their feelings any time may bring out further discussion.
So the third thing to do in the aftermath of traumatic events is to make time to discuss the events. Talking about feelings and thoughts will help children understand their feelings. It is wise to let children share their feelings first before parents express opinions. This will open the discussion up. Adults should watch TV on the topic with their children and use the news to broach sensitive topic areas. Discussing the facts and significance of the events and the child's reactions to the events is critical. Discussion of 'why' this happened should once again be geared to the developmental level of the child and should be based on the child's questions. Questions like 'Why do bad things happen to good people?" offer families an opportunity to grapple with one of the most difficult moral questions we face. Young children may simply accept that there are 'bad people' who do bad things. Adolescents will probably want a more in-depth understanding. Exploring what they think first will give adults an entry into the discussion. But some adult editorializing is fine. For instance, older children and adolescents should be told that not all people in a particular group are bad, that lashing out at members of a particular religious or ethnic group will only cause more harm. On the other hand, discussion may turn to the victims. It's natural and normal to feel very sad for those families who lost a loved one in the disaster. As a result of these discussions, there might be a patriotic desire of children to help out by sending allowance money to charities, writing letters of support to those who suffered at 'ground zero', etc. By addressing questions, issues and concerns and encouraging constructive actions children learn that they can understand and cope with adversity.
Ironically, out of disaster may come closeness, compassion, coping and even wisdom. When parents and other adults sensitively respond to their children about the events of September 11th, children can learn that that life is precious and sadness a natural response to other people's losses; that all their feelings matter and they are not alone; that there are ways to understand and cope even with horrifying events; and that they can regain a feeling of safety in times of national threat.
Reviewed by faculty and staff at the University of Michigan
Updated June 2007
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