Originally published in The (Columbus, Ind.) Republic, Oct. 24, 2001

By Andy Proffet
aproffet@therepublic.com

Parents need to ensure their families are strong in order to help their children cope with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

They can do that by actively listening to their children and by being consistent, said BCSC psychologist Dr. Jane Johnson.

Johnson and Tim Hillenburg of Parkside Pupil Services talked to about a dozen members of the elementary school’s PTO Tuesday night.

“Terrorism is just another stressor,” Johnson said, noting that children must deal with stress every day.

She gave the parents a list of everyday stressors, noting that any change can have an effect.

Even a best friend’s stress can impact a child, Johnson said.

Johnson suggested that parents should keep an eye on what their children are exposed to.

“Don’t let your kids sit at the computer and type in the word ‘terrorism,'” Johnson said. “They can find all kinds of things you don’t want them to see.”

She also noted that tolerance is an important trait to instill in children.

“We all have someone in our family who says things you don’t agree with,” she said. “If we don’t talk out against intolerance, our children will think we support it.”

Hillenburg said it’s important to explain to kids that “terrorism is based on hate and anger.”

One of the questions posed to Johnson and Hillenburg was what to do when children are playing war and talking about killing Afghanis.

“I say let them play, then talk to them about it later,” Hillenburg said. “Make sure they understand that all people in Afghanistan are not evil.

“We grew up playing cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians,” he said, motioning around the room. “That’s just what little kids do.”

But he stressed the importance of explaining what’s going on to children who are old enough to understand.

“Make sure they know that war is just one part of this fight against terrorism,” he said.

One parent expressed concern about not being able to explain everything to her children.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being honest with your children and saying, ‘I don’t know,'” Hillenburg said.

“It’s better to be honest with them than making something up,” he said.

Helping kids understand

Some hints for parents on how to help children understand the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath:

  • Discuss the day’s events on a need-to-know basis depending on the child’s age and developmental level.
  • Respond in a calm, reassuring manner, emphasizing that the child is safe and secure.
  • Listen to their concerns and don’t minimize their reactions.
  • Limit viewing of highly traumatic events.
  • Maintain as normal a schedule as possible.
  • Make sure children get enough rest.
  • Make sure children eat well-balanced, regular meals.
  • Physical activity is often helpful.

If the child’s feelings become prolonged or too intense, contact school personnel for assistance.