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What Do You Tell The Kids?

When the world stands still, the children are thrown off balance, too.

Child psychologist Lawrence Balter tells CBS that there are a few guidelines to follow when dealing with children in the face of such tragedy as the U.S. experienced on Tuesday, Sept. 11.

In each case, he cautions, parents must gauge their actions based on the age of their children and how much each child already knows about the tragedy.

  1. Don't lie. In other words, avoid making light of the events if your child is aware of what has happened. If you provide false assurance to a child knows that something is wrong, the child will become even more upset.
  2. Reassure them. Tell them specifically how they are going to be safe. Dr. Balter suggests talking to the kids about the president, the governor, and the mayor, explaining that they are doing all they can to find out who is responsible and to help the victims.
  3. Limit TV viewing. "There is no reason," says the child psychologist, "for children to see these horrific sights."
  4. Don't hide your feelings. Again, remember to tailor your actions to the age and sensitivities of your child. If your child is picking on your anxiety, don't deny that you are feeling anxious. Remember to reassure the child.
Dr. Balter also says that there may be signs that your child needs extra attention. Children may get "clingy" and not want to separate from their parents. Other behaviors to watch for include not wanting to eat or go to school, and obviously, having nightmares.

Finally, he advises parents to take advantage of help from mental health professionals, many of whom are available through their children's schools.

A professional day-care giver also has shared with parents what to do to help children feel better, particularly when our feelings mirror theirs. Jim Greenman, senior vice president of education and program for Bright Horizons Family Solutions, advises parents that, "more than anything, they need from us all the love, strength, reassurance, and calm that we can muster."

Children rely on the adults in their lives for their sense of safety, Greenman explains. Every child wants to know:

  • Will I be okay?
  • Will you be okay?
  • Will everybody I care about be okay?
Here are the major points of advice Greenman shares with parents:
  • Try to create a sense of calm and reassurance, even if you are feeling shaken and insecure yourself.

    Children absorb the tension, uncertainty, confusion, and fear around them. They read all the signals: changes in routines, the television and radio on, worried looks, animated discussion. Even babies know when something is up. To the best of your ability, give them your strength, empathy, and strong, rational self.

  • Answer questions, but recognize their developmental level. Don’t dismiss their questions. That will leave their fear and confusion intact. Instead, reassue them.

    For older children, help them understand that what happened is very, very unusual and isn’t at all normal. Point out that the destruction involved four buildings in two cities out of millions of buildings and thousands of cities, and that there were four airplanes out of thousands and thousands of airplanes Help them feel that it isn’t going to happen to them or to you, or to others whom they know (even if you are not feeling entirely sure that is the case).

    For children who are in the geographical areas directly affected or who were evacuated, reassure them that we think it’s over and they are safe. Help them feel that we will keep them safe.

  • Listen to the child and recognize feelings. Ask: “What are you thinking?” “What are you feeling?”
  • Respond with calm reassurance and empathy: sometimes really bad things happen and people get hurt. But it is not going to happen to you or me or your friends (again, even if you are not certain of this). It’s okay to share sadness and concern, but try not to express your fear.
  • Use care in exposing children to television or radio. For young children, the TV and radio reports will work against creating a sense of safety or security. But worried adults who are glued to the TV and shoo their kids away do not help the situation either. The best advice is to limit TV and radio when children are around and try to keep them from graphic images.
  • Recognize that it is a time to care about each other.

For more information from Bright Horizons Family Solutions, visit their Web site.

For another set of guidelines from Donna Schuurman, director of The Dougy Center for Grieving Children, go to www.grievingchild.org.

For more advice from Dr. Lawrence Balter, go to The Early Show Web site.

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