While data aren't yet in on how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are affecting children, there are many ways parents can help their youngsters process the shocking events and return to healthy activities and routines, childhood trauma experts say. Here's their advice:
Be developmental. "Anything we do with kids to help them cope with terrorist threats has to be age-specific," says disaster specialist Robin Gurwitch, PhD, of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. "Kids who are 6 are going to react a lot differently than kids who are 16." Gurwitch, who's well-known for her research on children following the Oklahoma City bombing, notes that young children in particular need to be reassured that they and their parents or caregivers are safe.
Even adolescents, who are striving for their independence and may not appear to need parental support, need reassurance. "Don't force them to communicate, but gently encourage them, let them know you're available and open to talking with them," Gurwitch advises. "Despite their independence, they still want to know you're there if they need you."
Monitor your reactions and those of your children. "Parents need to be careful about how they express things to their children," says Eric Vernberg, PhD, associate director of the clinical child psychology program at the University of Kansas. If a parent acts overly upset in relation to an event, for example, it's likely the child will internalize those feelings. Conversely, it's important for parents to assess subtle signs that their children are having problems, adds Vernberg. Children may act out in a variety of nonverbal ways in relation to their fears about terrorism, such as leaving the room when provocative news reports come on, simulating the terrorist attacks through play activity and becoming more worried about separating from their parents.
Communicate positive values. "Across age groups, parents have a unique opportunity to use the recent events to discuss values and ideas about tolerance and prejudice and hate and acceptance," says Gurwitch. Such discussions can help young people adopt a more realistic view of the source of terrorist threats and air their own possibly conflicting views.
Turn off the tube. Findings from the Oklahoma City bombing reveal that youngsters who spent more time watching TV disaster footage following the event developed more post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
Again, parent modeling of behavior can help. "If Mom and Dad are glued to the TV to the exclusion of family time, the child will get the feeling they're not available," Gurwitch says.
Return to normal. From practically the moment the two planes struck the World Trade Center, the media seized on the notion that "everything's changed"--a frightening concept for children, says Vernberg. While some things have changed, most aspects of our daily lives remain the same. Parents can reinforce that by focusing youngsters on daily routines such as taking care of the dog or cleaning their rooms. Such activities can help restore a sense of order in what may seem like a scary and unpredictable world.
Children of all ages can benefit from the security of having emergency safety plans they're familiar with, Gurwitch adds. "If something happens, families should have a plan in place so children know, for example, that Mom's OK," she says.
Don't over-worry. Children are pretty resilient, and "most kids coming out of a trauma are going to be OK," says Gurwitch. "We don't want to paint all kids with the brush of PTSD. It's important to recognize that there are many resources available to children and families."
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.
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