Henahan, Access Excellence (updated
San Francisco, CA (9/12/01)- The unspeakable tragedy of recent events
casts a pall of fear and uncertainty around the world. Teachers and parents
are on the front lines when it comes to helping children deal with disaster.
We provide here some resources we hope may help in this task.
& teachers alike should know that they play a central role in helping
children to understand what has taken place, to separate fact from fiction
and to establish a sense of safety."
Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education
James Garbarino, professor of human development and co-director of the Family
Life Development Center at Cornell University, offers the following advice
on helping their children cope with the news of recent terrorist attacks.
He is a nationally recognized expert on child development and youth violence.
His statement follows:
The national disaster that befell us on Sept. 11, 2001, challenges
all of us in many ways, some of which we will not recognize for days, weeks
or months to come. One of these is the way children cope.
We have learned important lessons from our previous experiences with children
coping with traumatic disasters -- wars (the Gulf War), natural catastrophes
(e.g., earthquakes), school shootings (e.g., Columbine), and other terrorist
acts (e.g., Oklahoma City).
Children in general will need reassurance that they and their loved ones are
safe . Young children particularly will need words and actions to communicate
calm and safety rather than anxiety and fear. The evidence is clear that children
cope best when adults avoid being incapacitated by fear and anxiety. Trying
to restore regular routines is important to reassure children that normal
life will resume.
Children already coping with loss and fear will need special reassurance .
Who are these children? They are children who have parents away from home,
who are involved in a divorce, who are hospitalized, who have lost a loved
one recently, or who in some other way are specially worried about issues
of safety, stability and security. Everyone connected with these "at risk"
children must make special efforts to offer physical, emotional and intellectual
nurturing and support.
Children will need a chance to ask their questions and get factual information
to dispel misperceptions and rumors that will arise due to their immature
reasoning and knowledge . Adults should make themselves available to children
to listen and then respond rather than just lecturing them on what adults
think is important. Hear and see the world through the ears and eyes of children
to know what to do to help them.
Parents and other adults will naturally tend to become preoccupied, anxious,
and sad by the disaster, but they must guard against this where children are
concerned. If adults are "psychologically unavailable," children will suffer.
This is a major issue. The message to parents is clear: Don't become glued
to the television and unavailable to your children when they need you most.
[Garbarino has worked with children, youth and families dealing with trauma
and violence for more than 25 years, including in war zones around the world
and in situations of community and family violence in the United States. He
is the author of 18 books, including, most recently, Parents Under Siege:
Why You Are The Solution, Not the Problem in Your Child's Life (New York:
The Free Press, 2001).
The American Academy for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers the following
A catastrophe such as an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, fire, flood,
or violent acts is frightening to children and adults alike. It is important
to acknowledge the parts of the disaster when talking with a child about it.
Falsely minimizing the danger will not end a child's concerns. Several factors
affect a child's response to a disaster.
The way children see and understand their parents' responses are very important.
Children are aware of their parents' worries most of the time, but they
are particularly sensitive during a crisis. Parents should admit their concerns
to their children, and also stress their abilities to cope with the situation.
A child's reaction also depends on how much destruction and/or death he
or she sees during and after the disaster. If a friend or family member
has been killed or seriously injured, or if the child's school or home has
been severely damaged, there is a greater chance that the child will experience
A child's age affects how the child will respond to the disaster. For example,
six-year-olds may show their worries about a catastrophe by refusing to
attend school, whereas adolescents may minimize their concerns, but argue
more with parents and show a decline in school performance. It is important
to explain the event in words the child can understand.
Following a disaster, people may develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
(PTSD), which is psychological damage that can result from experiencing,
witnessing, or participating in an overwhelmingly traumatic (frightening)
event. Children with this disorder have repeated episodes in which they
re-experience the traumatic event. Children often relive the trauma through
repetitive play. In young children, upsetting dreams of the traumatic event
may change into nightmares of monsters, of rescuing others, or of threats
to self or others. PTSD rarely appears during the trauma itself. Though
its symptoms can occur soon after the event, the disorder often surfaces
several months or even years later.
Parents should be alert to these changes in a child's behavior:
- Refusal to return to school and "clinging" behavior, including shadowing
the mother or father around the house
- Persistent fears related to the catastrophe (such as fears about being
permanently separated from parents)
- Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, screaming during sleep and bedwetting,
persisting more than several days after the event
- Loss of concentration and irritability
- Startled easily, 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
Professional advice or treatment for children affected by a disaster--especially
those who have witnessed destruction, injury or death--can help prevent
or minimize PTSD. Parents who are concerned about their children can ask
their pediatrician or family doctor to refer them to a child and adolescent
The Red Cross offers extensive resources for helping people of all ages
to cope with disaster. Excerpts for helping children follow
Children of different ages react in different ways to trauma.
In the face of an overwhelming event, very young children can feel helpless,
powerless, and unable to protect themselves. When the safety of their world
is threatened, they feel insecure and fearful. Children this age cannot
understand the concept of permanent loss. They believe that consequences
are reversible. They will repeatedly recreate parts of the disaster in their
play. These are all normal reactions. Abandonment is a major childhood fear,
so children need frequent reassurance they will be cared for and will not
be left behind.
Activities for home or school: play acting, physical contact, puppets,
art, stories, large muscle movement (throwing balls, etc.).
School age (7 to 11 years)
Children at this age have the ability to understand the permanence of loss
from a trauma. They can become preoccupied with details of it and want to
talk about it continually. They may not be able to concentrate in school
and their grades drop. Since their thinking is more mature, their understanding
of the disaster is more complete. This can result in a wide range of reactions:
guilt, feelings of failure, and anger.
School age children can also slip back into earlier behaviors. As in younger
children, sleep problems can appear. Their anxiety and fear may be seen
in an increased number of physical complaints.
Activities for home or school: play acting, puppets, drawing and
painting, sharing their experiences in groups, reading, creative writing
Pre-adolescence and adolescence (12 to 18 years)
In this age group, children have a great need to appear knowledgeable and
experienced to the world, especially to their family and friends. When they
live through a traumatic event they need to feel their anxieties and fears
are shared by their peers and are appropriate. Because they survived the
trauma, they may feel immortal. This can lead to reckless behavior and taking
dangerous risks. Their reactions are a mixture of earlier age group reactions
and reactions that are more adult. Teenage years are a period of moving
outward into the world. However, experiencing a trauma can create a feeling
that the world is unsafe. Even teenagers may return to earlier ways of behaving.
Overwhelmed by intense reactions, teens may be unable to discuss them with
their family members.
Activities at school: general classroom activities, literature
or reading, peer helpers, health class, art class, speech/drama, social
How To Help Children
Children of all ages can benefit from the family keeping their usual routinesmeals,
activities, and bedtimesas close to normal as possible. This allows
a child to feel more secure and in control. As much as possible, children
should stay with people with whom they feel most familiar.
Accept the special needs of children by allowing them to be more dependent
on you for a period of time. Give more hugs if they need them; let them
keep the light on at night or not sleep alone or return to having their
favorite teddy bear or blanket; don't mind their clinging behavior.
Following a disaster, everyone is eager to hear the latest news about what
happened. However, disaster research has shown that unexpected messages
or images on television were frightening, causing a reappearance of stress-related
problems. In addition, anyone who watches the disaster coverage can become
what is called a "secondary victim" and can suffer emotional and physical
problems. It is best to not allow children to watch news coverage of the
Feelings and Reactions
Children express their feelings and reactions in different ways. Your acceptance
of this will make a difference to how your child recovers from the trauma.
This means accepting that some children will react by becoming withdrawn
and unable to talk about the event, while others will feel intensely sad
and angry at times and at other times will act as if the disaster never
happened. Children are often confused about what has happened and about
their feelings. However, don't be surprised if some children don't seem
to be affected by what they have seen and heard. Not everyone has immediate
reactions; some have delayed reactions that show up days, weeks, or even
months later, and some may never have a reaction.
When To Seek Professional Help
Children are amazingly flexible, even though they can be deeply affected
by trauma or losses. Sometimes a child can be helped by a counselor who
can provide a safe place to talk about what happened and their feelings.
Getting professional help is a good idea if a child shows any of the following
changes for longer than three months following the trauma:
- Behavior or academic problems at school.
- Angry outbursts.
- Withdrawal from usual social activities or play with other children.
- Frequent nightmares or other sleep disturbances.
- Physical problems such as nausea, headaches, weight gain or loss.
- Intense anxiety or avoidance behavior that is triggered by reminders
of the event.
- Depression or a sense of hopelessness about life or the future.
- Alcohol or drug use problems.
- Dangerous risk-taking behavior.
- Continued worry about the event as a primary focus in life.
Seeing a counselor does not mean that a child is "mentally ill" or that
you have failed to support him or her. Following a trauma, many adults and
children have found that it is helpful to talk with a counselor who has
specialized training in post-traumatic reactions and can help them understand
and deal with how they are feeling.
Suggestions from U.S. Secretary of Education
U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige announced the establishment of a a
page providing suggestions for ways educators can talk with children about
the recent attacks. The webpage also provides links to additional resources
that may be helpful to parents, teachers and other adults who work with children.
"All adults should be concerned about how well the children in their lives
understand what has taken place. Families & teachers alike should know that
they play a central role in helping children to understand what has taken
place, to separate fact from fiction and to establish a sense of safety. There
are simple things adults can do -- but the most important is to listen to
and talk to the children in their lives. They also need to watch for signs
of unusual behavior and take steps to limit exposure to television & Internet
imagery," Paige said.
The Secretary also announced that the U.S. Department of Education would
be making a series of grants totaling in the millions of dollars to the school
districts directly affected by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center
& the Pentagon.
"It will take some time for the school districts that have suffer directly
as a result of these acts of terror to determine the nature and extent of
their need for our assistance. They each have our assurance that Project SERV
grants will be available to them when they determine their needs and priorities.
The U.S. Department of Education will be there to assist our schools in meeting
the needs of their students & faculty & the communities they serve."
The common thread running through advice from mental health professionals
is that teachers and parents have an essential role to play in helping children
through both the immediate aftermath of the current disasters, and the through
the longer term as well. Much of this involves shifting the focus from the
blanket media coverage to a more personal and supportive human interaction.