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Teens Need Reassurance, Too

Psychologists warn parents that small children aren't the only ones feeling vulnerable after terrorist attacks

THURSDAY, Sept. 13, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Much has been written and said about the need to counsel and soothe small children following the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

But psychologists warn that teen-agers also can be vulnerable to disturbing thoughts -- even potentially self-destructive responses -- as they struggle to make sense of the carnage.

"Columbine had a big impact on teen-agers, but this is bigger than that because of its magnitude, because it's an attack from outside our borders," said Jean Twenge, a San Diego psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders in teens and children.

"This is a new experience for a lot of us, but especially teens, who grew up in a time of peace and prosperity," she added.

Unnerved by the devastation and the continuous media coverage of rescue efforts, some teens might suddenly have difficulty sleeping, feel fatigued, and not be able to take pleasure in once-enjoyable activities -- they may even turn to illegal drugs, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Parents must remember that teens, despite their characteristic self-assurance, are still struggling to bridge the world between childhood and adulthood.

And many teens may need, and privately yearn for, reassurance and guidance from a caring parent or adult right now.

"Unlike kids, teens are beginning to appreciate the impact [of the terrorist attacks] on their lives, even if they don't affect them personally," said Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "They understand death and know that the people killed aren't coming back."

The attacks may also undermine a typical teen's struggle to achieve a sense of mastery of her world.

"They're trying to feel in control of things, and something like this gives them an incredible sense of feeling out of control," Kaslow said.

"I had an adolescent ask for an extra therapy session [after the attacks] because she felt that not only was she out of control, but that the world was out of control, and her parents couldn't protect her," she added.

Although parents can't possibly protect their teens from everything the world throws their way, they can offer an understanding ear.

"Teens think that being an adult and being independent means you can take events like this in stride and don't need to talk about them. But all of us need to talk out our emotions surrounding this event," Twenge said.

Kaslow said parents should "look for windows of opportunity for discussion," like watching television coverage of the aftermath with their teens and talking about what they see.

"Parents can share their own reactions and validate the feelings of their teen-agers," she said.

Those feelings can range and change from anger to sadness to fright.

Some teens, for instance, might ask a parent who travels a lot not to fly and argue their point with clarity and insight. Their concerns should be listened to and taken seriously, Kaslow said.

"There is no right thing for any of these issues. Each family has to figure it out, weighing the pros and cons," she added. One parent might agree to reduce the number of business trips he takes for a while; another might explain why she can't stop flying, Kaslow said as examples.

It's also crucial that parents discuss with their teens the appropriate responses to events like Tuesday's attacks, Kaslow said.

"One thing that is very important to tell teens is not to take out their anger on innocent people and to respect diversity," she said. "Little children don't understand [the differences] in ethnic background, but teens understand the ethnic makeup of their peers. They are more likely to target those people to make them feel responsible. They need to appreciate that the people involved in the attack do not represent a whole class of people."

What to Do: To learn more about how to help your teen cope with the shock of a disaster, visit The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, or the Search and Rescue Society of British Columbia.

SOURCES: Interviews with Jean Twenge, Ph.D., professor, San Diego State University, San Diego, Calif.; Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., professor and chief psychologist, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta
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