the Aftermath of Tragedy: Helping Children Cope
and educators all over New York City and across the nation struggled
to comprehend the events of September 11 while facing an equally
difficult dilemma: what to tell children. Education Update
recently had the opportunity to talk with child psychologist Dr.
Rex Forehand, of the University of Georgia, about ways parents
and educators can help children cope during these difficult times.
Dr. Forehand recommends that parents limit the amount of exposure
that their children have to the media, and that parents watch
television with their children so as to keep communication open.
While screening television programs may not be a viable option
with older children who spend more time unsupervised, it is equally
important that parents let their children know that they are there
to talk with them about what has happened. Parents and educators
can act as sounding boards for the thoughts and concerns of adolescents,
engaging in respectful, productive dialogue.
Since informal conversations will surely be going on among students,
by incorporating those conversations into the classroom, teachers
have the opportunity to guide discussion, to help students think
through complex issues and to use the situation as a learning
opportunity. Students can use recent events not only as a starting
point for academic projects on topics such as international relations,
but also as a chance to explore appropriate ways of handling difficult
situations and to strengthen problem-solving abilities. Teachers
may want to prepare students for these discussions by announcing
that they will put aside class time to talk about what has happened,
giving students the opportunity to reflect and formulate questions.
Colleges can help students by providing forums for group discussion
in residence halls and other gathering places on campus, although
such discussions should by no means be mandatory. Young adults
will make their own decisions about how to handle what has happened
and they need the freedom to do so.
Every child needs to know that he or she is safe, but how can
we offer reassurance to those children who were most affected
by the attacks, losing parents or other caring adults in their
lives? Dr. Forehand says that caregivers for these children should
acknowledge that a terrible thing has happened and try to give
the child a sense of security by telling him or her, “I’m here
now and I’m going to take care of you.” Losing a parent is, of
course, a long-term process and children who have had a parent
die will need the support of mental health professionals.
Children who were directly affected by the tragedy may need to
work out a structure that allows them some time before they return
to school. However, the continuation of a normal routine can provide
reassurance and a necessary sense of structure. Dr. Forehand recommends
that other children continue to go to school.
All children should be reassured that caring adults are looking
after their safety and are there to talk to them about what has
happened. But, parents’ reactions do not need to be universal.
“In reality,” says Dr. Forehand, “there are no two kids who are
alike. There are key things that [parents] need to do, but then
you have to adjust that to the needs of your own child.”
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