Supporting Our Children

Susan Phillips and Jan Richter
September 17, 2001

It's 7:30 in the morning on Wednesday, September 12, 2001. I find my 7-year-old son standing on the front porch of our house in Washington, DC. His hair is sticking out in every direction after a restless night spent in a sleeping bag at the foot of my bed. He is loudly singing a song, to a cheerful made-up tune: "I'm too young to die, I'm too young to die, I'm too young to die."

Five hours later, I hold my older son, a weeping, angry 9-year-old, in my arms. "Time is making things worse, existence is making things worse, everything is making things worse!" he shouts, then breaks free and runs upstairs to his room, slamming the door four times for extra emphasis.

All over the country, parents and caregivers are trying to steer children safely through the storms of emotion touched off by the September 11 attacks in New York City and Washington, DC. We wonder if we are doing the right thing.

We asked Jan Richter, Connect for Kids advocacy director, for help. Jan was trained in child and adolescent development at the University of Michigan and was a practicing clinician for over 15 years, working with children, families and adults.

In a crisis, information pours into our homes. Should we limit our children's access to news, especially on TV?

The way information is presented does make a difference. The more graphic it is, the more difficult it is for kids to absorb it at their own pace and maintain their resilience. Pictures have an enormous emotional impact. When images come at you, it's harder to deal with them, but the images children create themselves may be helpful in helping them express their feelings. I would try to shield children up to age 12 or so from the TV news, and keep an eye on teen TV and Internet exposure.

How much information is appropriate for children, and at what ages?

Let your children be your guides, to some extent. Listen carefully to the questions they are asking. Try to understand the feelings and thoughts behind what they are saying, then respond to those, rather than your own fears.

Younger children may express these feelings not just in words but also in play, in volatile moods (more irritable, more quiet), or in behaviors that are unusual for them. Some kids may worry about their own safety, while others may feel that their world has slipped out of control.

When children are scared, they need a restored feeling of safety. When parents help children label their feelings (simply saying "you seem worried" or "you seem frustrated" is helpful), children can feel more in control. When a parent responds with love and reassurance, they can feel safer again.

If you're trying to reassure very young children, hugging or holding them helps, because that's an important language to this age group. With preschoolers and grade school children you can use their drawings and play as well as their words to portray, repeat and get control over what they are experiencing. For instance, if they anxiously keep building towers and knocking them down, help them build a stronger tower or a protective wall, and then try to put into words the story of their play.

For teenagers, the recent events may have dealt a terrible blow to their feeling of invincibility. They may suddenly be feeling vulnerable and powerless. Some may appear sullen or full of jokes, trying to ward off these feelings. Here again listening and talking can help them restore their self-confidence. Parents can also help older children take some action to help others, so that they can feel competent and helpful.

What is the best approach towards teens who have trouble talking with parents about their fears and feelings? Can peers offer better support?

It may be easier for teens to turn to their friends for comfort and to share their feelings, but parents should not underestimate the importance of keeping the lines of communication open. One way to broach the topic might be to ask how your son or daughter's friends are coping. Other adults, like coaches, teachers or mentors, can help teens sort out their feelings and clarify their thinking.

Right now, we all feel vulnerable. What if I don't know how to answer my children's questions?

I think this is the hardest part of a parent's job. Kids pay very close attention to the emotional state of their parents. When someone they love is upset, their antennae are out. Knowing all the answers isn't as important as letting kids know that even though you're upset, you can still take care of them and do everything you can to keep them safe. If you are angry, upset, frustrated, sad, even afraid, tell your children how you feel. By meeting their needs, following their routines and rituals, and responding to their feelings, you let them know that you can still care for them.

What is a normal reaction to stress of this kind? When should adults worry about a child's emotional health?

Kids feel things intensely. That's one of the joys and pains of being a child. So the fact that a child is expressing things intensely is not ordinarily a sign of psychological damage. Typically children get upset, turn to their parents, feel comforted, go on about their business, then feel upset again and the cycle may continue.

If the child's distress, or new symptoms (like bedwetting, excessive clinging, sleep problems) persist without losing intensity for more than a few weeks, then one might seek professional guidance. Or if a child can't be comforted, no matter how attentive, sensitive and patient a parent is, parents might want to seek professional help.

For parents of older children and teens, immediate danger signs (that a child may be turning to alcohol or drugs, self-destructive behavior, taking risks) require a quick response. Don't hesitate to express your disapproval of the behavior and your concern about how they are dealing with a difficult time.

What if my kids want to sleep in my room? Is this OK? For how long?

Sleeping is not an easy matter for kids. If kids are troubled about anything, bedtime is often when they'll show it. Night is a time when imaginations are active and there are few distractions. Children who have had scary dreams often are afraid to let themselves sleep.

Bedtime is also a time when children may feel keenly aware of being separated from their family. All of us have felt a need to get close to those we love in times of crisis. Kids are the same. In the immediate aftermath many kids feel a need to be close to their parents at night especially. If a child's difficulties sleeping persist for more than several weeks, I'd seek professional advice.

How should a parent or other adult react when a child expresses rage, or a desire to kill those responsible?

It can be shocking to hear your loved child speak in such a raw, angry way. But it's important to fight the urge to say, "Don't say things like that!" Let them know that there are no good and bad feelings. Every human being has felt rage, fear, love. At the same time, you can help them maintain control over what they do about their feelings, guiding them to reject hurtful actions. If a 6-year-old says, "I want to gun them all down," you can respond, "You can't gun everybody down, that's not the right thing to do, but I can understand how angry you feel." It's making a distinction between feeling and behavior.

Many assume that the perpetrators were Muslims, and we've heard of Muslim children facing hateful words and behaviors. What can Muslim parents do to help their children deal with this added stress?

If you suspect they'll encounter hurtful language or actions at school or in the neighborhood, you might want to try to prepare them. You could explain that some kids may feel so upset they will say or even do things that are hurtful, but this is wrong, and if it happens, you want to know about it. "If children are mean to you, you can tell me about it. It may make you mad or sad, but I don't want you to feel you have to defend our religion or our culture all by yourself."

Expressions of hatred and prejudice also damage the children who make them, and those who witness them. What can we do for those kids?

Most kids don't like feeling like bullies; no one likes to be picked on. Parents can encourage their children to tell them how other kids are talking at school. If parents hear of scapegoating at school, or the bus stop, or in the community, they can help their children understand that such language and behavior are unacceptable. I think the adults have a responsibility to act. Organize volunteers to supervise the school bus stop or community hangouts. Contact the school. Adults will have to work together to improve the social climate.

Older children and teens may want to organize an event for their school that celebrates and respects the diversity of the student body or the community. Parents and teachers can work together to help.

It's frightening for kids to see adults get so angry they lash out at whole groups of people. It's important not to use hateful or violent language yourself at home.




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