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How to Talk to Children About the Terrorist Attacks

Over the next few weeks and months, the impact of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will begin to sink in for Americans, both young and old. Our family adolescence counselor Mike Riera has advice on how to talk with your children.

What's the key thing parents should remember?

I think the key thing is that we have to do two things simultaneously as parents. One is acknowledge the fear that they have, acknowledge their feelings. Whatever those feelings are, let them have them, normalize them. And at the same time, it’s very important to reassure them, to let them know it's going to be okay--you're going to be there for them. No false promises, but we have to understand that at the bottom of fear is love. People are afraid because they're going to lose their family, they're going to lose life, and the way that we're going to reconnect with our kids is through this love, so we need to make sure they understand this from us and make sure we read the signs of what's going on with them so that their behavior becomes understandable to us.

Tell us about those signs. You said these children are feeling fear, but no one child reacts the same as another?

No child, no adult reacts the same as another. Some kids immediately go to fear. Some go to anger. Some go to shock and nothing's going to happen for a week or so. For most kids, especially younger kids, they can't say directly so it comes out in indirect ways. All of a sudden, they can’t sleep at night. All of a sudden someone who's diaper trained has an accident in bed or has an accident at school. They say something. They crash into things and knock things down. So it’s all sort of just outside of the consciousness. And what we need to do as parents is stop and gather ourselves. We're going through our own emotions. And the one thing we can do that can be really helpful is when we’re with our kids, have an extra amount of patience, give ourselves more space, acknowledge to the kids that we're going through some of these things, and what they'll do is they'll start to identify, "Oh, Mommy, Daddy, it's because of what happened in New York that you're reacting this way."

How much do you let the see of the [television] coverage, if at all?

Before they're in school, I don't think they should be seeing it at all, the very young kids. When they get to school, you need to understand they're seeing the images, hearing about it in school, so you want to minimize it. You want to minimize the impact. You can’t protect them from it. I mean, it may be that you let them see a couple of images and then you talk with them about it, but you have to keep it under control. Just like as adults, we need to check in to know that this is going on, but we need to get away from it; otherwise we get overwhelmed. So I would say through middle school, you really try to curtail it. In high school these kids are going to be on thei own, but I think we talk to them about the effect it can have on them and make sure we get them away from it sometimes.

How do you deal with early childhood cases?

The thing is to remember they don’t understand like adults, so with a 4- or 5-year-old you might say, "Something terrible has happened." Some kids, that's all they need to know. Most kids want to know more and you may have to put it in their language. Like with a 5-year-old, the language might be, 'A building was exploded and people got killed.' And explain what that's about a little bit. And at the same time reassure them. When you tell them this, it's often good to be touching them in some way so that they know the reassurance, acknowledge it's going to be okay in the family. As they get older, the key is we let them know what happened and then we wait and answer the questions they ask us. The tendency is to give them more information than they're really asking for. And understand when you tell a 7or 8-year-old they might respond, "Okay." The next question may come up in a minute. It might come up a day later while you're driving them to school. So we have to be cognizant that these questions are percolating under the surface, and when they come up, that's what we answer, but only the question they ask.
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