Helping children deal with tragedy

Advice: Psychiatrists recommend how to approach these events and explain them without creating more fear.

September 12, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

With images of yesterday's frightening attacks saturating the media, parents today face a daunting task: How to explain these events to their children.

Two leading child psychiatrists say parents should be open and honest, but offer only as much information as a child is old enough - and mature enough - to handle and then leave the door open to questions if the child wants to know more.

Dr. Richard M. Sarles, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at University of Maryland Medical Center, and Dr. Paramjit T. Joshi, chair of the psychiatry department at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, say the most important message a parent can offer right now is one of love and reassurance.

"The bottom line is that at any age, these events are very frightening," says Sarles. "We need to offer reassurance and protection and let them know we're here and that we're safe."

"All of us could use that kind of help," adds Joshi, who could see from her office window the smoke rising from yesterday's attack on the Pentagon. "We need to be able to take care of ourselves, and then we can do a better job of taking care of our children."

How should a parent talk to a child about what happened?

Sarles: A preschool child doesn't understand the enormity of it. They'll pick up on the anxiety of their parents and in the news media. What the parent of a preschool child can try to do is not try to explain it but provide reassurance and protection: "Mommy and Daddy are here to protect you."

The school-age child from 6 to 12 is going to be much more attuned to current events - the closing of school, parents coming home from work, and the tragedy of this entire situation. When you get to the adolescent, they're much more sophisticated. They know the unpredictability and capriciousness of terrorism.

The bottom line at any age is that it's very frightening. In essence, we can try to protect against it but the very nature of how terrorists work shakes our basic foundation of safety.

Joshi: One of the important things is to acknowledge the frightening parts. You want to keep a child calm but you also don't want to falsely minimize the danger. That would not allow the child to share his feelings.

It is frightful. You're in shock yourself. But you should let the child know we're going to get through this together. We can talk about it.

Should I shield my child from what's happened?

Sarles: You can't. Everyone watches TV now. The radio is on. newspapers get delivered. The enormity of this terrorist act is such that it would be very hard to shield a child from it. The best thing for a parent to do is maintain open communication with their children and not lie to them.

Joshi: To some extent, yes you should shield a child. You may want to sort of see what's suitable and what's not. [For instance,] it worries me to see a shooting all over again on television. This time it's going to be images of planes running into buildings, fire and destruction. Their reaction may depend on how much destruction the child sees. They have this visual impact.

How can a child distinguish between what's happened and the similar images we see in movies and video games?

Sarles: Parents today watching this with children, their affect and response will tell the children it's not make-believe. The emotions surrounding this will help them differentiate.

Joshi: The older children can, but the younger children can't. I think it's important for any child to know that this is not a game and there is a finality to what happened.

What if my child asks why this happened?

Sarles: For the preschooler, you have to explain there are evil and bad people in the world, and that's the end of the discussion. For the school-age and adolescent, you have to talk about why terrorists behave the way they do.

Joshi: Your answer is as good as mine. We don't know. As time goes on, we'll try and understand why it happened. You have to be honest.

How can I prevent my child from becoming fearful?

Sarles: The good news is that this occurs rarely in this country. We've been protected in this country from terrorism. You can reassure the child that this doesn't happen often. If you were living in Israel where terrorism is a daily event, it's very hard to reassure.

Joshi: Fear in the next few days is a normal human response. The question parents have is about long-term fearfulness. You need to try to normalize their lives as quickly as possible. The more we stay away from school or don't allow the child to feel what he is feeling, the more fearful they're going to get.

It's important for the schools to have the kids try to talk about it. That can help relieve anxiety. Not addressing is not good for the kids. We all need to move on - even if it's hard to imagine that right now.

Is there a such a thing as giving my child too much information?

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