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Talking With Your Kids About Travel Tragedies

(September 2001)

In the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks, parents face the difficult task of trying to explain the unexplainable to their children. For parents who travel, giving explanations can seem even more challenging given the fact that commercial airliners were used as a tool for terror.

This was the case for me yesterday, as my innocent seven-year-old daughter wondered why Daddy (an airline pilot) was not coming home as planned. He, like thousands of other air travelers, is stranded and awaiting news of when he can return. In typical kid-fashion, questions came flooding out. Was Daddy on the plane? Were there kids on the planes? Are there bad men on all planes? I answered her questions cautiously, but truthfully.

What to Say and Do

It's unwise to let young children or adolescents view footage of traumatic events repeatedly as this can be traumatizing. Furthermore, children and adolescents should not watch these events alone.

Although it might be easy to turn off the television, it is not easy for parents to turn off the questions that children have. When talking with your children about terrorism, The National Mental Health Association (NMHA) recommends the following:

  • Because children need comforting and frequent reassurance that they’re safe, make sure they get it.
  • Be honest and open about the disaster.
  • Encourage children to express their feelings through talking, drawing, or playing.
  • Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.
Whatever the child’s age, it is important that you be open about the consequences for your family, and that you encourage him or her to talk about it.

What to Watch For

NMHA warns parents to watch for signs of stress, which may include:

  • Not sleeping
  • Not eating
  • Fighting and/or crying
  • Reverting to childish behavior
  • Nightmares
With pre-school age children, behavior such as bedwetting, thumb sucking, baby talk, or a fear of sleeping may intensify or reappear in children who had previously outgrown it. Children may complain of stomach cramps or headaches, and be reluctant to go to school. Adolescent children may express their fear through acting out, regressing to younger habits, or engaging in substance abuse. It is important for parents to remember that these children are not acting up to be "bad," but because they are scared.

Give your children extra attention, and most of all, hugs. Times of tragedy are times for giving and receiving reassurance, and to focus on the all important emotional healing process.

Additional Sources:

Parents can access the following websites for more information on how to help their children cope:

National Mental Health Association
American Academy of Pediatrics
National Association of School Psychologists

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