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Terrorism: How to Explain to Children - 2001-10-24

The terrorist incidents in the United States and the ongoing anthrax threat present a dilemma for parents in dealing with their children. Parents question how much to tell their children and how best to reassure them of their safety. Experts on child development in Northridge, California, offered advice at a recent forum.

The horrifying images of terror in New York were carried into the living rooms of this suburban community by television. Since the attacks September 11th, worried children have asked if similar incidents could happen here. And experts say some children are displaying psychological symptoms, from problems with sleep to fear of separation from their parents.

Psychologist Scott Plunkett has seen this before. In 1995, he worked in a counseling center next door to the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. He heard and felt the explosion that claimed the lives of 168 men, women, and children, and he later helped residents cope with their feelings of trauma.

Today, Mr. Plunkett is much farther from the site of the tragedy. He now teaches family environmental sciences at California State University in Northridge. But he sees similar reactions of fear and uncertainty, especially among youngsters. "Even college students, a lot of them, have been coming into the office and wanting visits," he says. "And one of the big complaints they have is they're not sleeping very well, or if they do, they're having dreams where basically they're showing lack of control, where they have no control over what's going on in that dream. And I think that's indicative of the way a lot of people feel, that they don't have control over the terrorism that occurred."

Residents of the Los Angeles suburb of Northridge faced similar feelings of lack of control in 1994, when a major earthquake rocked the community, killing 57 people. At a recent campus forum, psychologists and experts offered the same advice that they gave to parents then.

"There are a lot of variables and there isn't a formula, but you need to listen to the children very carefully, pay attention to what they say, how they act," says Carol Kelly, head of California State University in Northridge's Department of Child and Adolescent Development. "Don't let them watch television hour after hour after hour. If you do let them watch, watch with them and talk about what's going on. Don't deny the truth, but say we'll do everything we can to keep you safe."

Child development experts say the repeated images of aircraft striking buildings can have a harmful effect on children. So can continuing news reports of anthrax sent through the mail, which is raising the level of fear among adolescents, in particular.

Psychologist Dee Shepherd-Look says it is important that adults not overreact, and she offers additional pointers for parents and teachers in dealing with children. "One is to try to keep their environment as predictable as possible, to go on with normal routines. Secondly, is to be much more cuddly and nurturing and affectionate, and patient with the children during this time," she says. "And the third one is to help children come to understand what happened, and this is where I think clear thinking on the part of adults is important."

The psychologist says parents should answer their children's questions at a level appropriate to their age. Parents can even discuss larger issues of terrorism and conflict in simplified terms. The psychologist says children should be encouraged to express their feelings in concrete ways, for example, by raising funds for the terror victims.

Tina Villa, a fourth-year college student in child development, works in a kindergarten class as a field assignment. She says her students remember the victims of the terror attacks each Friday, when teachers ask them to wear patriotic colors. "Every Friday now is red-white-and-blue day," she says. "And the teacher will say, o.k., remember Friday to wear red, white and blue. And they'll say, why? One of the kindergartners will chime in a say, oh, that's the day the plane hit the building."

Child development specialist David Wakefield says part of the negative fallout of the terrorist incidents is a suspicion of Arabs and Muslims, sometimes expressed more openly by adolescents than by adults. The psychologist says parents can use such comments as opportunities to promote tolerance and respect for other cultures. "Parents can do this, teachers can do this, where when a child says something that may seem or is prejudicial, using that as a "teachable moment" to have a dialogue so they can think about those attitudes they're forming," says Mr. Wakefield. "And often it's a time when they're looking for input from adults and input from others in order to form their attitudes."

These child development experts say among the student body in local schools are many immigrant children, some from war-torn countries. They say it is especially important for parents and teachers to reassure those students, and those who have lived through traumatizing events such as the Northridge earthquake.