What to tell children

BY PJ HELLER | LOS ANGELES | September 12, 2001

"What do we tell our children? We listen. We hold them. We tell them, 'I love you. Love is forever."

—Meg Riley

First Lady Laura Bush, echoing the advice of mental health professionals, advised parents Tuesday to allay their children's fears after the apparent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Parents need to reassure their children everywhere in our country that they're safe," she said.

That same message was echoed Tuesday night by the Rev. Meg Riley during a vigil at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C.

"What do we tell our children?" asked Riley, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association office in Washington. "We listen. We hold them. We tell them, 'I love you. Love is forever.'"

"As parents, we want nothing more than to protect our children from pain, from fear, from harm," she said. "As parents, we know nothing is more impossible. How we handle our own grief and integrity will speak volumes to our children about how to be a human being in a troubled, broken, world. May we be worthy of this most sacred charge that has been given to us. Forever."

School officials from New York to California, meantime, sought to calm fears of students. Many also kept students apprised of the events unfolding throughout the day. Other schools sent students home early.

At San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara, Calif., principal Paul Serka made the rounds of classes to speak with students. Many of the classes were devoted to watching the news on television or discussions about the tragedy. All after school extra-curricular activities were canceled.

Students at some schools said the collapse of the World Trade Center and the devastation at the Pentagon was like something they would see in the movies, not in real life.

Mental health officials said parents and caregivers should talk to their children to help them cope with the events.

"Confusion is rampant, leading many to feel powerless and scared, especially children who have never lived through an event of this magnitude," said Martin Kaminer, chairman of Jewish Family & Life!, which created a Web site to help parents, educators and community members learn how to respond to the attacks.

Kaminer said the site offers "unique and immediate resources that will help families come to grips with the catastrophe."

Psychologists from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia advised parents and caregivers to stay calm and be reassuring when talking with children about the attacks.

"Children take their cues from adults and are affected by actions, tone of voice and non-verbal communication," they said, adding, "Adults should seek the support they need in order to be strong for their children."

Other advice they offered included to emphasize safety, routine and structure; be honest and express concern; convey messages of optimism and hope; provide extra positive attention, and be understanding of children's lingering fears.

"Children may have nightmares, trouble sleeping or express anxiety about going to school or being separated from family in the days and weeks following a tragedy," they said. "Parents and caregivers should continue to be reassuring long after the tragedy."

They also said youngsters should be given time to deal with sadness and grief.

"Some families will be dealing with the loss of a loved one and it is important to help children to grieve for those they have lost," they said. "Encourage children to talk about their feelings, ask questions and emphasize that it is normal to feel sad."

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