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When it comes to talking about Sept. 11 with kids ... ‘Listen, Listen, Listen’

September 9, 2011
By BETSY BETHEL Life Associate Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

As the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches, the facts and consequences of that day's events are being recounted and rehashed everywhere, from multiple media outlets and the Internet to community venues and classrooms. Even some Sunday comic strips will be 9-11 themed this week.

Parents of young children may wonder how to address the subject on the home front. What should they tell them? How much should they tell them? Should they say anything at all?

Educator and parenting consultant Betsy Brown Braun is the author of "Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents." In a phone interview from her home in California, Braun said parents first and foremost should be prepared to answer questions from their children, even if the subject never comes up.

"Let's just get you prepared because when parents have answers, they do a much better job with their kids and won't create any additional anxiety," said Braun, who also is the mother of adult triplets.

For children 5 and under, she said, if the topic arises, it will most likely be in the context of "somebody died" or "something bad happened" because they saw some media coverage. The first thing to do is figure out what the child is really asking, she said. "'Are you asking me what happened to that little girl's father?' He may then say, 'No, I want to know where that airplane was going.'"

Second, find out what the child already knows, Braun said. Ask them what they saw or heard. A variety of resources for parents on the Internet repeat the mantra: "Listen, listen, listen."

"Let them take the lead," said Dr. Michael Marshall, professor of psychology at West Liberty University. "They will take the lead for what they are ready to hear."

Then if they have questions, answer them simply and factually, both Marshall and Braun said.

"Don't be graphic and don't elaborate," Marshall said.

"Be honest and accurate, but be brief and simple," Braun said.

Said Braun, if asked about a person dying: "'Yes, that little girl's daddy did die.' 'How did he die?' 'Well, an accident happened and the building collapsed and he couldn't get out.'"

Braun and Marshall stressed the most important point to get across to the child during the conversation is that he is safe - that it happened a long time ago and that their house and school, or where Daddy or Mommy works, are safe places.

"Children are pretty egocentric," Marshall said. "They want to know if it will happen to them."

Braun suggests parents answer that question in the negative because the chances of it happening are so minute. They need "handles of reassurance," she said.

"God forbid something horrible would happen, but your job is to make sure your child knows she is safe," Braun said.

For children who are in primary grades, Braun said they probably know more about 9-11 and so their fears may be bigger. To reassure them, "talk about all the ways they are safe," including the increased security at airports. Older children will ask more questions - and more difficult questions, such as who are the terrorists and why were they so angry. These, too, should be answered as factually and as succinctly as possible.

Braun said parents can tell their kids terrorists are people who try to get their way by frightening and hurting others, and that the men who crashed the airplanes were people who were angry and jealous at the freedoms Americans have.

In this discussion, both Braun and Marshall emphasized the importance of modeling a calm demeanor and stressing the values that make America what it is.

"This is such an unbelievable opportunity, really, to teach tolerance and patience and acceptance and not racism," Braun said.

It's also an opportunity to talk about the heroes who risked their lives to save those in the World Trade Center and surrounding buildings.

"You could talk about how people came together as a country, and our pride and dedication toward being American. You can talk about how we reacted by defending ourselves against our enemies, but without creating a sense of prejudice or hate," Marshall said.

One children's book that addresses the events of that day is "September 11th, 2001: a simple account for children." The book tells what happened with all four planes, discusses the motives of the terrorists and applauds the first responders and people across the country and world who stepped up to help in the aftermath. Rather than showing graphic photographs, the book is illustrated with drawings by schoolchildren from Cincinnati.

The goal of all of this listening and discussion is to reduce anxiety and stress on the children, the experts said.

"Anxiety is debilitating and can get in the way of healthy functioning," Braun said. Signs of anxiety, according to Marshall, include fear of the dark, nightmares, clingy behavior, regression and reluctance to go to school.

Regarding the ubiquitous media coverage, research by Dr. Mark J. Schuster published in the New England Journal of Medicine in November 2001, shows limiting children's exposure to television coverage limits their stress symptoms. The study found no link, however, between the stress symptoms and the how much parents and children talked about the attacks.

For more information on talking to children about 9-11, a parent discussion guide, created by the American Psychological Association and Nickelodeon, is available at Nickelodeon's Parents Con website.

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