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Nov. 5 2001 12:40 PM

What To Tell Kids About Terrorism?

Pretty much the same thing you tell them about sex.


Everything parents want to know about what to tell kids about terrorism, they needn't be afraid to ask. There's lots of advice on the Internet, and it's a variation on the by now familiar wisdom about discussing two other unnerving topics with children: violence and, more surprisingly, sex.


As with both of those subjects, the available counsel is aimed as much at soothing parents' own anxieties as it is at helping adults deal with children's fears and questions. That may sound narcissistic, but it's also realistic. For as the various Web site advisers acknowledge (with just a hint of disappointment), kids may not actually seem panicked or particularly eager to talk as the days go by. But there's another reason. As the psychologists-on-call also all point out, "Children will often model their own reactions to events based on their parents' reactions": So calming themselves down may be the best help mothers and fathers can provide for their kids.

And by and large, parents are likely to find the Web sites reassuring—not least because the wisdom they dispense is so generically familiar, and because for once the experts are not picking fights with each other. In the face of crisis, there is consensus: The refrain is, as usual, more parent-child "communication"; the reigning values are safety and security; and the fall-back is, as always, consult a professional. If the advisers fail to supply definitive prescriptions and get caught up in contradictions, that is only to say that they are modeling reactions to terror that are well within the reach of all of us.

The advice follows a common model. First, parents should "come to terms with their own emotions": That seems to mean being "honest" about your feelings of fear, anger, and sadness—but not too honest, except about the sadness. "It is okay to let your children see you cry," various sites specify, but hate needs to be filtered out of the anger. That means reminding yourself, and your children, of the importance of ethnic tolerance. As for fear, the general advice is don’t betray it (though at, you'll hear it's OK to show you're "a little bit afraid"). (Teachers and other educators are counseled to "monitor [their] own emotions" carefully, too, to guard against the occupational hazard for caregivers in a crisis: "burnout," also known as "vicarious traumatization," "compassion fatigue," or "empathetic strain," according to the National Association of School Psychologists' Web site.) 

Parents should proceed by listening to children's questions or by asking "open-ended" questions of their own, not by swamping their kids with "elaborate responses to what you may think they feel or want to know." This stance is either easy to strike—several sites supply sample queries: "What have your friends and teachers been saying about everything in the news?"—or a daunting matter of playing "detective" and deducing exactly what's on children's minds. On that score, the advisers hedge their bets. Don't assume "they want lots of details" is the general view (echoing sex advice)—or can handle them (echoing advice on violence): Keep media exposure carefully monitored, allowing very little of it for young kids and keeping older ones company in front of the television. Yet don't be surprised if kids' curiosity is graphic, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton warns: They're concrete thinkers, and they personalize. (Would you have jumped or stayed in the burning building? How did that baby get anthrax? What did it look like?) Likely questions and appropriate answers depend, of course, on a child's age, gender, temperament, emotional development, past experience, and place of residence. The Web gurus do their best to generalize. For toddlers, the advice is, shield them. Older preschool kids, likely to have caught wind of the events of Sept. 11 (even with parents who wisely watch the news after bedtime), are especially vulnerable to scary confusion. Kids this age, the experts explain, are prey to "magical thinking" that may make them believe it was all their fault. They're also prone to the most overt symptoms of anxiety: nightmares, tummy aches, bedwetting, fears of the dark, stuttering. Keep discussion simple, emphasize that adults are working so that bad things won't happen again (a tactic less effective since the advent of anthrax), urge them to express their feelings by drawing.


With kids of post-kindergarten age, the advisers seem almost as concerned about undue detachment as they are about excessive sensitivity. School-aged kids, exposed to so much media violence, may need reminding that this was and is real; emphasize all the volunteer efforts after Sept. 11, encourage them to send donations, share stories of triumph over hardship (watch The Sound of Music!). For preteens and teens, seize the opportunity to discuss world events, to find patterns in history, to debate solutions, to read up, and to voice opinions: "Let your teens and preteens have their own points of view," and make sure they aren't hiding "their deeper feelings and concerns" under a cool facade.

Expect boys and girls to respond differently—the guys caught up in the military hardware, the girls with "issues of suffering and helping"—but "be careful not to foist responses onto ... kids just because of assumptions about gender." The anthrax threat has inspired kid-directed information about the dangerous germs, delivered in the comic-book style currently popular in sex-ed material. See for a short animated film about where the spores come from and how they work, depending on where they lodge in the body.

When in doubt, the experts tell parents, "remember that you don't have to have all of the answers. It's okay to say, 'I don't know,' or 'I don't understand this either.' " What parents do have to do, however, is convey to children the one feeling they probably do not have: the feeling of safety. Advisers recommend verbal assurances that parents are there to protect them, that "everything is OK in our personal world" (less useful in New York or D.C.—or in Florida or New Jersey in the wake of anthrax, or anywhere, for that matter, given the latest warning that another attack may be imminent). Kids should be told (or made to feel) they can ask any questions, express any feelings they have—but they shouldn’t be pressed to talk if they don’t want to. "Hugs help too!" (though not, warns a D.C. public health flyer distributed to public schools, if there might be anthrax powder floating around, in which case avoid contact). The problem, the manager of FEMA for Kids grants, is that "providing [kids] with safety guidelines to protect themselves from terrorism is difficult." Instead, spend extra time with your kids, arrange family togetherness, be patient with clinginess and other signs of worry; "even spoiling them for a little while" is OK, according to FEMA. But don't emphasize safety so much that you erode a child's feelings of security: Parents should stick to routines, maintain the usual structure and discipline, and keep lives "as normal as possible."

Finally, parents should devise a "family disaster plan." That means designating "rally points," in addition to home, where everyone can meet, and establishing "third-party contacts" out of state whom everyone will call (a tidy scheme that assumes transportation and communication lines are running as usual, which those who were in D.C. or New York on Sept. 11 know is a surreal notion). The more realistic variation on this theme—emergency plans for schools—goes unmentioned. (Is it psychologically correct, I wonder, to have students practice moving en masse to a safe place inside the school and to call the exercise a "tornado drill"? My kids' middle school did that, which caused some perplexity—but, who knows, perhaps less anxiety—in the students I know.) Beware, though, of being too rigidly dependent on the experts' advice: We Spock-marked parents have come to expect a dose of anti-guru-style guidance, and Stuart Janousky, M.D., supplies it at "Many people look toward experts at this time to help them learn how to cope," he writes. "I take a slightly different approach, I turn to our children." The five lessons he learns: Take time to play; know when to ask for help; tell it like it is; find something joyful in every day; take time to laugh.