Helping Children Cope

As each adult grapples with this trauma differently, so will our children. Maria Trozzi, M.D., author of Talking with Children About Loss and the director of the Good Grief Program at Boston Medical Center, offers the following insights into how children of different ages may respond and need support.

  • Young Children -- They will watch you closely. But they will not be stirred up unless you are. They can’t understand. They may say, as one 5-year-old did: "Daddy, do you go to that Hotel [the World Trade Center]?" And when the father said, "No, neither Daddy nor Mommy go to that hotel," the child is likely to just say "good" and move on. Children this age are not old enough to have a perspective on trauma. They will have no way of understanding the "good or evil of it" and won’t get sucked into the TV drama.

  • 6- to 12-Year-Olds -- After age 6, children are not immune to this. They worry out loud or alone: "Will I get hurt? Could they bomb my school?" They will want a better understanding about how they will be kept safe.

    You have to keep asking them what they have heard. Help them make sense of it. They still have no real perspective between ages 6 and 12. They’ll wonder: "Does this mean we’ll go to war? If there were a war, would we all be bombed?" They need the reassurance that this is not a huge group, but a few; and that an all-out war -- their reference being what they see on TV and in the movies -- will not happen.

    They also need to know that the nation’s leaders are working hard and together to protect our country. Remind them to look around at all the wonderful people who are wrapping their arms around our nation and that what happened is very, very rare and has never happened before.

  • The Middle Years -- This is a big deal for children this age. They have perspective -- they realize the enormity of this to our national security, to the world. Also they will be very much into the "good vs. evil" part of this. They will want and expect someone to be punished.

    They may also gloss over it and be sarcastic, saying things like "Are you still watching all this stupid stuff?" This is because they are old enough to understand how huge this is and it scares them. They understand the loss. And they may be less able to openly take comforting. Be a steady listener. Allow them the protection they find in the sarcasm. Be around a lot, ready to listen when they are ready to talk. Ask them questions, but don’t bug them.

  • Adolescents & Teens -- They will be sorting it out in their own ways. Our biggest job is to listen, be there for them and keep listening. They will offer and participate in discussions about this with their parents, other adults they trust and their friends. Be available and ready to listen. You are a steady reference point that they can come to as they need you.

  • College Students & Young Adults -- They are adult-kids. They will too often be treated like adults when they need support just as children do. Trozzi’s 21-year-old was told by her college to evacuate the school in 15 minutes on Sept. 11. And that was it.

    "She was terrified," Trozzi recalls. "She left and went home and called me at work and told me I had to come home. That is not atypical. My 23-year-old, a med. student, was hysterical. They have feelings like 10-year-olds, but are supposed to act like adults."

    They, like all of us, will very soon need to know what they can do. They will need to take action. Help them find ways to help. Maybe they can go to prayer services or give blood ( or 1-800-GIVE-LIFE , 1-800-HELP-NOW).

    What Can We Do?

    To achieve resiliency, children and adults need to understand, grieve and, eventually, "commentate" on these events, says Trozzi. "‘Commentating’ is doing something, giving this chaos meaning, helping. This is our way of expressing our humanity. They may want to write a story, draw a picture, make a journal or donate blood or some of their discretionary money to a charity that is created to help. They may want to work through your temple, church or mosque."

    With tentative hope, Trozzi cites the words of the famous teacher of grieving, Rabbi Earl Grollman: "Grief shared is grief diminished."

    "If we flip that," Trozzi says, "we can imagine, as each of us is able to do something, this commentating will multiply and grow and extend across our nation."

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