Reassure children: "You are safe"

September 13, 2001 | By Cheryl Wetzstein

When real-life horror stories fill the airwaves as they have since Tuesday’s terrorist attacks, children want to hear their parents’ reassuring voices, say professionals who work with children.

Since it is impossible to shield children from TV and radio reports or from overhearing adult conversations, it is important to tell them about the situation in simple terms, said Linda Seligman, a Fairfax psychologist.

Even preschoolers can understand good vs. bad, she said, adding: “You could say ‘Some bad people did an awful thing. People are badly hurt, but the president and the army are taking steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again. You are safe and you’ll be safe with your parents.’ You should reassure children about their safety and their parents’ safety.” Maintaining normal routines—school, homework, sports and friends—is also comforting to children, especially younger ones, said Miss Seligman. They need to know “that life goes on.”

For older children, the tragic events can lead to discussions about global facts of life, said historian Neil Howe.

“This is where you begin telling them that all this stuff about Pearl Harbor and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ isn’t just a movie. This is real life. This is history that hits from time to time,” he said.

Teens have a “natural fascination for when history turns big corners,” and until Tuesday, their biggest national tragedy was the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, said Mr. Howe, who has co-authored several books on American generations, including one on the new generation of “millennial” teens.

When children ask why bad things happen, parents can say, “‘There are bad people out there in the world.’ I think all kids understand that and that’s how Columbine was explained,” said Mr. Howe. “But in a way,” he added, “Columbine was more difficult to explain because those ‘bad kids’ might have been the kid right next to you.”

“Teen-agers need to process what is going on and deal with it, too,” said Sabine Gnesdiloff, a licensed clinical social worker with Inova Fairfax Hospital.

Teen-agers who can comprehend the situation may also feel scared and helpless, said Ms. Gnesdiloff, whose own children attend Langley High School in McLean, near CIA headquarters. Students there were fearful that their area might be the target of another attack on Tuesday, she said.

“I wouldn’t have the TV on all the time,” she said. “But if it is on, you can acknowledge being scared and you can point out the good things people are doing as a result. This is an opportunity to see the best and worst of people.”

There is no “right way” to react to the situation, said Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, a child psychiatrist in New York and Greenwich, Conn.

“You may be afraid, you may cry, you may have no reaction at all,” said Dr. Rosenfeld, who did research in the 1990s on children’s emotions in the wake of the Gulf War. “Many of us still can’t believe it happened. It is going to take some time to comprehend that this is real,” he said. If older children want to help the victims, he said, tell them that listening to friends who are grieving is a good way to do it. “Just the fact that you are concerned and asking is enough.”

Parents should also be aware of the symptoms of anxiety—headaches, stomach aches, irritability, loss of concentration, clingy behavior, withdrawal and sleep loss, said Kids Peace, a group that helps children cope with crises. Large doses of reassurance and love are advised, the group said.