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What do we tell our children?

author: Barbara F. Meltz
description: "Nobody has written the how-to manual on this one yet. When our children woke up this morning, the world felt less safe to them than it did at the same time yesterday. It did for us, too, but if adults are finding the events in New York and Washington incomprehensible, children may be profoundly frightened."

published in: Boston Globe
published: 09/01/2002
posted to site: 09/14/2001

What do we tell our children?

By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff, 9/12/2001

Special thanks to the Boston Globe for allowing us to reprint this article here.

Nobody has written the how-to manual on this one yet. When our children woke up this morning, the world felt less safe to them than it did at the same time yesterday. It did for us, too, but if adults are finding the events in New York and Washington incomprehensible, children may be profoundly frightened.

''Just as this is beyond belief for adults, it suggests to children that the worst fantasies they can possibly have are possible. The illusion that life is safe and predictable has been challenged,'' child psychiatrist Stuart Goldman of Children's Hospital and Harvard University said yesterday.

For children of every age, the first thought often will be an egocentric one: ''What about me? Am I safe? Are my parents safe?'' Answering that question is our first and most important responsibility, said children's television personality Fred Rogers in a telephone interview. He urged parents not to fall apart, ''even though that's what you feel like doing,'' and to tell children explicitly that we and our government are doing all we can to keep them and our country safe, even as we express our sorrow and grief.

For children under 7, worry typically translates to clingy behavior. A 4-year-old may follow you around the house, or insist you stay with her tonight until she falls asleep, something she hasn't wanted for an age. With older children, the clinging has an age-appropriate twist: ''The most independent 16-year-old may suddenly be checking in with you by phone just to say he's going to be five minutes late,'' Goldman said.

Keeping the connection to children tightly under control, literally being with them even if it's just to be in the same room or under the same roof, is profoundly comforting and something parents should not underestimate. It's what prompted child psychiatrist Gene V. Beresin of Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital to cancel patients yesterday so he could be home when his twin 14-year-olds arrived from school. It's also what's behind Brookline psychologist Sharon Gordetsky 's advice when she tells parents to cancel any plans in the next few days and this weekend that would take you away from your children.

Gordetsky said some children will need more structure than usual in the days to come, perhaps wanting you to walk them to school, or meet the bus. If a child of any age is more fearful than usual, expecting him to tough it out - ''You have your own bedroom to sleep in, just like always'' - runs the risk of inflaming fears, not dispelling them. She said keeping to routines, having family meals together, getting together with extended family, and lots of extra cuddle time are strategies to mitigate against fearfulness.

Why do deaths in New York City and Washington translate to childhood fears in Boston? For the same reasons they do for adults: They stir up an intense sense of vulnerability. In addition, though, young children lack the cognitive ability to bring perspective to tragedy. If an airplane can fly into a building in New York, why not into the Prudential or the Hancock in Boston? If a plane can be hijacked and blow up, why not daddy's plane when he goes on a business trip? If people can go to work and die in Washington or New York, how safe is mom's office in Providence or Boston? For middle- and high-school age children who are able to engage in abstract thinking, the fears may project to the future, but also in a self-centered way: Will our country ever be safe again? Will I ever feel safe flying? Will we fly to Colorado at Christmas? Will our synagogue be safe at Rosh Hashana?

Seven- to 9-year-olds are the most likely to have specific, concrete fears, asking technical questions that seem almost bizarre (''What was the exact airplane route? What did the pilot say? What did he look like? What did he eat for dinner the night before?''). ''It's a way for them to gain some mastery, some sense of control,'' said child psychologist Susan Linn of the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.

No matter how crazy, repetitive, or upsetting a child's questions are, shushing him in a ''don't-worry-everything's-OK'' kind of way ignores his concerns, and they may only get worse.

''The first rule, no matter what your child's age, is to find out what they know,'' said Linn. In the weeks and months to come, children will be getting information from a variety of sources that you may or may not know about. ''Whenever the subject comes up, ask first, `Tell me what you heard, tell me what you know.' Always start any new conversation that way,'' she said. Some children need more encouragement than others to voice their questions. If you don't know an answer, it's OK to say you'll look into it and get back to him. (Make sure you do!)

It's also OK to share your feelings, even with preschoolers, as long as you don't burden them or overdo it. ''If you're walking around wringing your hands and saying this is the end of the world, that is not helpful,'' said Goldman. A good response might be: ''It's true, this is very sad and scary. Mommy and I are very upset.''

Couple that with a statement that reassures that your family is safe and that you have confidence the country is safe: ''We always do everything we can in our family to keep ourselves safe, and I know the president and the FBI and the police are doing everything they can to make sure this never happens again.'' That's a message worth repeating to children of all ages, including even a cycnical teenager, said Linn.

Teenagers may appear to be cavalier about the events. Don't believe it.

''Teens have a sense of immortality. They may not want to talk about it as a way to deny or defend against how frightened they are,'' she said. By the time he comes home tonight, your teenager may be making jokes about it. Even though humor can be a coping mechanism, Linn said teenagers will take their cues from us and we need to model appropriate response. Her response to a joke would be, ''That makes me uncomfortable.''

Even some preteens may voice indifference. (''It's not such a big deal.'') ''That could be a sign of desensitization,'' she said, from watching video and media violence. ''Don't challenge them on this,'' she advised. ''Just make it clear that it is a big deal: `Gee, that's not at all how I feel.' Even though a preteen or teenager may appear not to be listening to you, she is.''

Deborah Meier, principal of the Mission Hill School in Boston, which has kindergarten through eighth grade, likened yesterday to Pearl Harbor, which she remembers from her childhood as primarily exciting, not particularly traumatic. Unfortunately for children today, unlimited access to visual images could make this traumatic indeed.

Meier and others urged parents to severely limit how much television children under 12 watch.

''The more they see, the more likely there will be nightmares'' and lasting imagery, said David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt. Linn would keep the television off altogether (although not necessarily the radio) until a child 7 or younger is asleep, and would carefully monitor viewing for weeks to come (no unsupervised channel surfing). Even with children up to 14, for the next few days at least, she and Fassler and others recommend they watch the news only when parents are with them, and even then, not replay after replay.

As the painful process of healing and moving on begins, Fred Rogers says what will help children most is something his mother used to tell him: ''Look for the helpers.''

''It's reassuring and empowering for children to know there are people who will always want to help,'' he said.

This story ran on page G1 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2001. © Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.