Special Reports

Parent-child experts discuss how to handle Sept. 11 fears

Most children who live far from ground zero aren't dealing with the same kind of Sept. 11 trauma as kids in New York City or Washington, D.C.

But as the anniversary of the attacks nears, South Sound youngsters may still need an emotional booster shot from parents as they navigate school discussions, community memorial events and saturation TV coverage.

Mental health experts say talking to children about their feelings can help them cope with their anxieties.

"Allow children to talk and express their emotions," advises Monica Marshall, director of children's mental health for the National Mental Health Association. "It's more helpful to prepare kids for what they're going to be feeling than having to react to feelings later."

Bill DeWitt, a mental health counselor at the Child and Family Guidance Clinic in Tacoma, advises parents to assess their child's vulnerability to emotional distress.

"If you think your child is vulnerable to anxiety issues, it might be best to keep them away from the TV set," he said.

Marshall said kids who watch television coverage or hear about the Sept. 11 catastrophe at school may internalize the message that the world is a bad place.

"We need to reassure them that it is not," she said. She suggests showing children the positives - heroism, volunteer efforts - that grew out of the tragedy.

DeWitt said he and his colleagues dealt with a few isolated cases of clients distressed over Sept. 11 events last year. But he said that the anniversary doesn't seem to be prompting large numbers of requests for more help.

Families need to be aware that other issues - such as a divorce, illness or death in the family - can make children vulnerable to the powerful feelings raised by the Sept. 11 anniversary.

"There's a tendency to dismiss children's feelings, thinking (downplaying it) will make them feel better," DeWitt said.

Children who haven't endured recent trauma still may need help understanding their emotions as the anniversary is marked.

"I don't think anybody is exempt from the experience, no matter how close or far," Marshall said. It's a matter of degree.

What about kids who don't say much of anything about Sept. 11? Should parents bring it up?

"I think it's OK to gently bring it up," DeWitt said. "Ask, 'How are you feeling today? Do you know what day it is? Are you upset in any way?' But I wouldn't force them to talk about it."

Instead, he said, make it clear that you have feelings about Sept. 11, and that you're available to talk when your child is ready.

"It's an opportunity to teach your children to be more emotionally intelligent, to help them in expressing feelings and help them recognize how others feel," DeWitt said.

Several organizations, including the National Mental Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Mary Bridge Children's Hospital, have published tips to help parents and others who work with children. Among them:

•Take care of yourself. Children model their behavior on the adults around them. If you need to talk about your anxiety, find a friend, family member, religious adviser or professional counselor.

•Avoid or limit TV viewing, especially for younger children. When older kids watch TV, try to watch with them and discuss how it makes your child feel.

•Acknowledge that bad things happen even to good people and we can't always explain why. Tell children it's difficult for you to understand.

•Encourage your child to ask questions, and answer them directly. Take cues from your child as to how much information to provide. Generally, older children want and will benefit from more information.

•Don't force the issue. Extend multiple invitations to talk and wait for your child to accept them.

•Reassure children that steps are being taken to keep them safe. Maintaining your routine adds to a child's sense of security.

•Be sensitive to your child's fears. Some may fear another attack, others may be afraid to fly.

•Help your child identify ways he or she can help those who were directly affected by the tragedy.

•Work with your child's school. Find out what is discussed in the classroom, the types of news coverage shared at school and what school resources are available for your child.

•Avoid prejudice. Make a distinction between terrorists and others who share that ethnic or religious background but are not terrorists.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635


On the Net:

www.aap.org/ terrorism


www.marybridge. org

• If you or your children need help finding emotional support, contact the National Mental Health Association: 1-800-969-NMHA (1-800-969-6642).