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Explaining the Horror to Your Children

Experts say limit details of the disaster, but be honest

TUESDAY, Sept. 11, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- When your children come home from school tonight, how do you explain the horrific events in New York City and Washington, D.C.?

Experts say the best thing to do is answer their questions honestly and calmly, but give no more information than what they ask for.

"This is obviously a catastrophic event that is going to affect and reach lots of kids. It's important that adults acknowledge that this is a very serious disaster that's occurred and not try to falsely minimize that," said Dr. James MacIntyre, an associate professor of psychiatry at Albany Medical College in New York. "Kids will have a lot of emotions about this."

Although many adults themselves will have a hard time coping with shock and heartache, children --- particularly those who are in kindergarten or younger --- are much less equipped to deal with those emotions, MacIntyre said. Previous disasters, including the Oklahoma City bombing, have directly affected the emotional states of kids.

Children of all ages will take many of their cues about how they feel from adults, he said.

"When they start seeing adults on the news crying, people they know having a hard time, kids will be very unnerved," MacIntyre added. "The parents should try to get themselves together about how they're going to talk about this. If parents have lost friends or relatives or are very concerned, that's probably not the best time to try to explain these things to kids."

When explanations do come, they should include onlythe information that is needed, added Elizabeth Vermilyea, a trauma specialist and training director with The Sidran Traumatic Stress Foundation in Baltimore.

"They ought to feel free to tell the children what happened, the facts, and then elicit what the child wants [to know]: ' What are you thinking about? Is something worrying you about this?' " she said. "Sometimes, we give a whole lot of information because we don't know what to say. We may say more than a child is concerned about."

Some children will suffer greatly from stress after a disaster like today's terrorist attacks. Here are some potential problems to watch for in your kids, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology:

  • A refusal to return to school and "clinging" behavior, including shadowing Mom or Dad around the house
  • Persistent fears related to the catastrophe (like the fear of being permanently separated from parents)
  • Sleep disturbances, including nightmares, screaming during sleep and bedwetting, persisting more than several days after the event
  • Loss of concentration and irritability
  • Easily startled or jumpy
  • Behavior problems, for example, misbehaving in school or at home in ways that are not typical for the child
  • Physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, dizziness) for which a physical cause cannot be found
  • Withdrawal from family and friends, sadness, listlessness, decreased activity, and preoccupation with the events of the disaster.

Whether children seem distressed or not, they should be given plenty of opportunities to discuss their feelings, Vermilyea said.

"There needs to be an open forum for children to talk about this in their classrooms, in their churches, with their family members," she added. "They need to be permitted to grapple with the big questions: Why did God let this happen? How can I be safe?"

The answers, however, may be hard to find.

What To Do

Learn how to help children after disasters by visiting this fact sheet created by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology.

The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies has more advice at its Web site.

SOURCES: Interviews with James MacIntyre, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist, associate professor of psychiatry, Albany Medical College, N.Y.; Elizabeth Vermilyea, M.A., trauma specialist and training director, The Sidran Traumatic Stress Foundation, Baltimore, Md.
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