Explaining the day the bogeyman came
By DAWN WALTON, The Globe and Mail
Ella came home from school yesterday unaware of the carnage that had taken place in the terrorist attacks south of the border. Her main preoccupation was sending out invitations to her seventh birthday party next week, and hoping her little brother wouldn't scribble on them. The teachers at her Jewish school in downtown Toronto had decided to leave it to the parents to explain the day's horrifying events to their children.
Should Ella be left blissfully unaware? "I figured she'd learn soon enough," said her father, "from the news, or tomorrow at school. I thought it would be better that it came from me."
Ella digested the basics pretty well. But she couldn't understand why "some bad guys," as her father called them, would want to just destroy a building. To her, bad guys try to take things that don't belong to them. "No, they just wanted to hurt people," her father said.
"But it's not as bad as war, is it?"
Tough question. "No, it's not as bad as war," her father said, justifying his stretching the truth since the attacks all happened in a single day, not over a prolonged period. "You don't have to worry about that."
"Can I go back to my invitations now?" she asked.
Children need to be reassured that they are safe, despite parents and guardians own worries in the wake of yesterday's attacks, child welfare professionals say. "They're going to be full of questions," said Helen Jones, co-founder of the Association of Parent Support Groups in Ontario. " 'Can this happen here?' I guess we all kind of think that . . . but don't project unnecessary fear." Foremost, children need to be assured that they are safe.
After Alan Boras's 12-year-old, Andrea, saw the devastating images of terrorism on television before heading to school yesterday, she called him at work. "It was difficult to explain something that is so horrible to children, but you try and talk about the fact that there are bad things that happen in the world and these are some of them," the Calgary father said.
"She thought it was scary. To a child, I'm sure it is extremely scary," Mr. Boras said.
Through his own head-shaking disbelief, the father of three reassured his daughter that she was safe. There would be more talk about safety around the dinner table when he got home with his wife, nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son.
From preschool to high school age, caregivers should talk about the tragic events in New York and Washington with their children, mental-health providers advise. Young people shouldn't be left in the dark, otherwise their imaginations will run rampant and make the situation worse. At the same time, they shouldn't be given graphic details. Preschoolers and elementary students don't need to understand the politics behind the tragedy.
"Gear it to the questions they ask. You don't give them any more information than you have to give," Ms. Jones said.
The Peel District School Board in southern Ontario started sending letters -- tailored for kindergarten, elementary and more senior students -- home yesterday with children with tips for their parents.
"The media saturation really can make kids anxious," said Brian Woodland, a spokesman with the board. "During the Gulf War, children in neighbourhoods around here were concerned that they could have missiles landing in their yard. Because they're elementary children, their sense of time and space is very different."
Crisis and mental-health workers suggest the following:
Explain what happened in simple terms. Be straightforward.
Don't be afraid to use the word "death."
Talk about your child's fears and your feelings.
Keep usual schedules. Dinner and bedtime shouldn't change.
Limit your child's exposure to news coverage.
Peter Nieman, a member of the psychosocial committee of the Canadian Pediatric Society, said caregivers have to be careful about TV exposure and adult conversations around young children in particular. "They might start to worry that it might come closer to home," said Dr. Nieman, a Calgary practitioner.
Parents should allow children to sleep with them or leave the lights on if preschoolers are experiencing nightmares. "This is not a good time to force them to be separate from you if they need you."
He suggests that caregivers encourage elementary students to draw pictures or keep journals to help cope with their feelings. Forcing children to talk about their feelings right away may make the situation worse.
"The kids that are the highest at risk are the very bright preschooler and the early school-age kids who tend to sometimes blame themselves for disasters. [They think] it's their fault that this may have happened. We see it with hurricanes, earthquakes," Dr. Nieman said.
For teens, a disaster can also be an opportunity to teach values of right and wrong, Dr. Nieman said.
In any event, parents and teachers need to be ready. "[Today] will absolutely be the most critical day in terms of dealing with some of those feelings. Children can have delayed reaction. It could take days for it to truly come out," he said.
Dawn Walton is a Globe and Mail reporter based in Calgary.