Parents urged to make children feel safe during 9/11 recap

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 6, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Even though some children are too young to remember the Sept. 11 attacks, many will hear about the tragedy over and over again this week during intense media coverage of the 10th anniversary.
The “noise around the 9/11 anniversary is going to be too loud for kids to ignore — and they’ll get a lot of misinformation,” journalist Linda Ellerbee, who hosts a show on the youth-oriented channel Nickelodeon, told Reuters.
Nick News aired “What Happened?: The Story of September 11 2001” on Thursday. Ellerbee’s program and others aimed at young audiences are providing accurate information to children about Sept. 11 and the events that followed.
Parents also should take time this week to help their kids understand the attacks and make them feel safe, local mental health professionals said.
“This is important,” said Dr. Craig Chepke, a psychiatrist at Rowan Regional Medical Center. “Kids know more than we think they do.”
Parents should tell the truth, Chepke said, and do their homework before discussing 9/11 with children. They should know the facts. Take a history-book approach, he suggested.
“You should bring it up, because they will get their information somewhere,” he said.
Ask what they know, then correct misinformation and fill in the gaps, Chepke said. According to a study carried out for Nickelodeon by the Harrison Group and Harvest Research, 92 percent of kids as young as 8 to 11 years old are aware of the importance of 9/11.
But they sometimes have the facts wrong, thinking hundreds of planes disappeared on Sept. 11 or the hijackers were from Japan.
Parents should correct errors while not embellishing or minimizing events, Chepke said. Don’t speculate or make political statements, he said.
If kids ask a question and parents don’t have the answer, “it’s OK to say you don’t know, but maybe we can find out together,” Chepke said.
Parents should watch and read media coverage of 9/11 with their children and avoid programs that include disturbing images like people jumping from the World Trade Center or planes flying into buildings. The American Psychological Association recommends children younger than 6 watch little to none of the coverage.
“I hope that media coverage will be mindful of the potential incidental trauma that could be caused by exposure to the most horrific images from 9/11, for adults but particularly for children,” said Allison Crotty, director of consumer affairs for PBH, formerly Piedmont Behavioral Healthcare, in Kannapolis.
While children may be desensitized to violence in disaster movies, that can’t compare to what they understand is reality, Crotty said in an email to the Post.
Parents should discuss the feelings they experience while watching 9/11 TV specials with their kids, providing a good model that can teach children and teenagers how to identify and normalize feelings, she said.
Seeing parents “freaking out” will upset a child, but adults don’t need to be stoic, Chepke said.
“It’s good for kids to see their parents cry,” he said.
Parents can emphasize the positive stories from 9/11 — how the country came together, the heroism of first responders, tales of survival. They should look for signs of stress, anxiety or sadness in their children, including changes in behavior and appetite or acting out, as well as drug or alcohol abuse in teenagers, Chepke said.
Spending extra time together reading, going to a park or playing games can help children who seem sensitive to 9/11, Chepke said.
“More hugs,” he said. “Let them know you are there for them.”
But parents shouldn’t overdo their reaction to Sept. 11 coverage and events, warned Dr. Susan Hurt, a local forensic psychologist who treats children.
“If kids have stress about the coverage of 9/11, I would want to find the grown-up around them who has the stress and is giving it to the kids,” Hurt said.
Studies have shown that for children who did not witness the attacks in person or lose a loved one, the emotional fallout was fairly transient.
“I work with children who have been traumatized by a variety of things, and it didn’t even occur to me that the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 is something we will talk about,” Hurt said.
As long as lines of communication are open, parents should not initiate a discussion about the terror attacks, Hurt said. If they want to talk about it, children will bring it up, she said.
Parents may need to prepare for the opposite response from their children — nonchalance. “Kids have smaller worlds,” she said. “They might not grasp the seriousness of it.”
Tips to help children
• Encourage children to say how they feel about the event.
• Ask children what they have seen, heard or experienced.
• Assure children their parents are taking care of them and will continue to help them deal with anything that makes them feel afraid.
• Let children know that institutions of democracy are still in place and our government is intact.
• Know that it’s possible for children to experience vicariously the traumatization from the terrorist attack by watching TV coverage or overhearing adult conversations.
Source: American Psychological Association
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.