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Staying Strong for Your Kids

The Early Show talks to New York psychologist, Marlin Potash, who offers advice for adults when dealing with the post-traumatic stress from the World Trade Center attack in teens and younger children.

There are two types of people who are suffering right now--people who have been hit directly and people who've been hit indirectly. Here in the New York area, with about 5,000 missing, chances are most of us are going to know someone, or at least someone who knows someone, who was lost in the attack. Kids, if not handled the right way, are quite vulnerable.

If the worst has happened and a wife has lost her husband, how does she stay strong enough to talk to her children, while consoling herself?

A parent has to console themselves and their children. Here, my advice would be not to hide your grief from your children, and to remember that your children still need you to be their parent. This is the time when you should pull in all the help you can get. Let your neighbors and friends help if they are offering. This is a time when an extended family should be extended further. The worst thing you can do is leave your child out and think your child is too young to understand.

There are specific things adults can do to help kids cope.

What can parents do to specifically help their children?

  • Be sensitive to signs:

    Look for things that are being said . . . the unspoken word, for instance, if your children are being clingy, this is a sign that they are looking for your attention.

  • Tell the truth:

    Telling the truth is crucial. Tell them what has happened and what continues to happen. Of course, it needs to be done within the limits of what your child can handle . . . and this depends on their age. You should explain what's going on now and figure out what you can do to make your family feel safe again. Denying that something happened is ridiculous. They know something is wrong and it's better they hear about it from you than someone else.

  • Encourage expression of feelings:

    Ask them what they're afraid of and address those concerns. By listening to those specific concerns you will be helping them much more than if you just talk to them about what you think they should be worried about.

  • Take a news break:

    Taking a break from the onslaught of news is necessary. Really limit yourself here.

  • Stay close and connected:

    Make sure you keep in close contact with your kids, even of they are older. Kids may want to hear from you more than usual. Let them know you're okay when you're at work. If they're older and are away at college, call them. Keep connected.

  • Resume routine:

    Be flexible, but get back to your normal routine with the kids: School, extracurricular, familiar routine and surroundings help.

Are there things that we shouldn’t be doing?

Right now we have to be very careful not to do a few thingsThe first would be expressing bigotry. Parents should be careful not to let their anger turn to bigotry. We need to watch what we say in times of frustration. Kids hear everything, especially vengeful thoughts.

The second is appearing hopeless. Kids need a sense that the world will go on. We have to be brave for them and keep it together for them.

Are there big differences in how we handle teens and younger children?

Adolescence is a time when most teens are self-centered. They are probably worried about how all of this will affect them personally. Teens can look like they are handling things well when they are not, a false bravado. One minute they are sophisticated adults and the next minute they are a kid who wants to be hugged. Be there for them. This is a blow to their feeling of invulnerability. As a nation, we have really woken up from our own adolescence. Teens will oscillate between wanting to know everything that is going on to wanting to watch teir favorite fall TV shows. Be ready for this and accept it.

What about the little ones?

We need to tell our small children who have always counted on us to keep them safe that they are still safe, that we love them, and that we can still count on our government to be strong. They have to know they can lean on you for help or to simply be there to address their concerns.

While the focus of this segment is how to help your kids, how can people who have been scared and are afraid resume normal life?

People have to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking. Resuming normal activity is so important. Doing nothing but staying home and watching TV is harmful. When your head is empty you think the worst. When you are busy, it's better. You might think it's better to stay put, at home with your family, but it helps to go back to work and see fellow employees. There is something reassuring about seeing people face to face. This lets you know life will go on, and it will, even if we do go to war. The longer you take, the harder it is to get back out there. But, if you absolutely can't go back to work, because you are too afraid, you shouldn't go. We've never lived through this before so we don't have all of the answers. The right decision for one person might be the wrong decision for another. You have to listen to yourself.
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