As all of us struggle to deal with the tragic and terrible events of September
11, it's important to recognize how young children may be especially affected
by these terrorist acts. Parents and others who care for young children need
to provide comfort, reassurance and stability.
When children witness violent events, directly or on television, the result
is often fear and confusion. Not only can the sudden and unexpected nature of
many disasters cause high anxiety and even panic, but young children are also
most fearful when they do not understand what is happening around them. Their
feelings and reactions should be expected and considered natural.
Helping children deal with their reactions to this disaster can be challenging
when adults haven't had adequate time to deal with their own reactions, but
adults should remember that children are very perceptive, and will quickly recognize
the fear and anxiety that adults are experiencing.
The following strategies can help parents and other adults give children
the emotional support they need, and show them that you are there to take care
Give reassurance and physical comfort.
Physically holding children brings comfort and a sense of security. Children
need extra hugs, smiles and hand-holding. Reassure them that they are safe and
that there is someone there to take care of them. Hearing a family member or
a teacher say, "I will take care of you," makes children feel safe.
Young children have great faith in adults' powers and are responsive to adult
reassurances. Model and demonstrate coping skills, because children will imitate
adults in reacting to the situation.
Children need to find consistency and security in their day, especially when
the rest of their life is unpredictable. Provide a framework that will be the
same from day to day. Emphasize familiar routines at playtime, clean-up, naptime,
meals and bedtime. Make sure children are getting appropriate sleep, exercise
and nutrition. Play soothing music and model moving slowly and using a quiet
voice. Children may have a difficult time accepting routines and other limits,
but persevere by being firm and supportive. Make decisions for children when
they cannot cope with choice.
Welcome children's talking about the disaster.
Children regain a sense of control by talking about things that bother them,
and talking with a supportive adult can help them clarify their feelings. At
the same time, children should not be pressured to talk; they may need time
to absorb these experiences before discussing them. To help children feel comfortable,
parents and other adults can share their own feelings of fear and anxiety, but
they should always do so in a calm, reassuring way. For example, you might say,
"I was frightened when I saw the explosions, but I knew there were people
who were ready to help out." What children need most is to feel that the
situation is under control.
Focus on experiences that help children release tension.
• Give children more time for the relaxing,
therapeutic experience of playing with sand, water, clay and playdough.
• Provide plenty of time and opportunity for children to work out their
concerns and feelings through dramatic play. Create props that children can
use to pretend they are firefighters, doctors, rescue workers or other helpers.
In dramatic play, children can pretend that they are big and strong to gain
control over their trauma and to overcome feelings of helplessness.
• Spend more time in settings that give children opportunities for physical
activity and that provide an emotional release.
Model peaceful resolution
Peaceful resolution to conflict is one way to give children a stronger sense
of power and control, especially critical in the wake of a disaster, which leaves
them feeling powerless. Because children who have experienced the emotional
trauma and violence of disaster often behave aggressively, they need to see
alternatives to using violence to solve problems.
As we learn more about the individuals who are responsible for these tragic
events, adults must help children avoid making inappropriate assumptions and
using labels about groups of people based on their race, ethnicity, religious
background or national origin.
Watch for changes in behavior.
Mental health professionals suggest that, children, like adults, may exhibit
symptoms of stress following a disaster. For preschoolers, such symptoms may
include thumbsucking, bedwetting, clinging, changes in sleep or eating patterns,
and isolation from other children. Older children may be irritable or aggressive
and display poor concentration, among other changes in their behavior. Experts
also suggest that it is natural for children to display behavioral changes as
they emotionally process their anxiety and fear.
Adapted from "When Disaster Strikes: Helping
Young Children Cope" by Jane M. Farish --an NAEYC brochure.
"The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) exists
for the purpose of leading and consolidating the efforts of individuals and groups
working to achieve healthy development and constructive education for all young
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