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September 13th 2001 - 11:00 GMT

The following article is by Dr. Steven Richfield and is reproduced here with his permission. Dr. Richfield is a child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting and is well known for his excellent Parent Coaching Cards, more details of which can be found at his website

Helping Your Child Cope With The Terrorism Of September 11th

The recent terrorist attack has rattled our collective psyches and shattered our children's' belief in the safety of our country. Depending upon their age and personality, children have differing needs to talk and learn about the events of September 11th. As a general rule, elementary-aged kids perceive life in narrower terms, preferring to focus on the immediate moments rather than the past or future. Thus the youngsters will have less need to talk and ask questions. In contrast, middle schoolers and older teens are likely to pursue a deeper understanding of the meanings and implications since their cognitive abilities thirst for answers to such horrific acts of violence. But even these developmental distinctions can fade in the wake of personality and predisposing factors. For example, a normally anxious and reflective 8 year old may need to process these events with parents more thoroughly than a detached and emotionally flat adolescent.

So what's a parent to do? The following points are offered for your consideration with the caveat that your own knowledge of your child can be your best guide:

Supervise and manage the flow of information. Most parents are all too familiar with the emotional impact of the violent pictures that flash across the television after tragedies that take a human toll. Multiply that impact by ten and you have an idea of how the pictures of September 11th may effect some children. Therefore, if you decide to allow your child to watch any news broadcasts, sit by their side and periodically ask about their thoughts and feelings. For many children, the pictures have greater impact because they can be replayed in their minds whereas the words remain on an auditory level. Misinformation is another peril to consider. As children discuss these events among their friends and peers, they may hear deliberate falsifications or distortions of the truth. Prepare them for these possibilities and encourage them to reveal what they've heard so that you can help them separate fact from fiction.

Prepare for emotional fallout. Anger, frustration, confusion, worry, shock, anxiety, and so many other emotions too numerous to mention, are going to surface across the landscape of America. Help children understand the links between what they are feeling and what happened, as one middle schooler told his mother, "This never happened in my life before, I feel like I have no control over what is going on." When beliefs about the safety of air travel, tourist attractions, and life in America are so quickly altered, children are likely to ask some of the same questions that we ask ourselves, "What if it happened when we were there? What if we were on that plane?" Parents can explain how normal it is to have these questions but the answers are too painful to think about. Suggest that children turn their questions into some form of helping behavior for those who have been personally effected by the trajedies.

Be ready for the really tough questions. Suicidal terrorists hijacking domestic airplanes in order to kill large numbers of American civilians may have once been considered an "unspeakable act" but now must be discussed with our children, when appropriate. If your child is mature enough to have this conversation, be ready to attempt to make sense out of it for him/her, no matter how much it reeks of senselessness. One way is to start the discussion by speaking of how people's beliefs can be so strong and one-sided that they act like blindfolds and make them feel justified in taking whatever action might fulfill their objectives. Point out the much greater margin of safety that still remains in their lives no matter how much their "emotional selves" may feel otherwise. Suggest that it might help them to share some of their feelings with trusted friends, or alternately, invite a few friends and parents over to discuss how the incidents are effecting everyone. This can help your child recognize the benefit of expressing their feelings so that they don't become internalized in the form of anxiety or acted out in anger.

Translate the previously inconceivable. What your children learn in the coming days and weeks will be puzzling and burdensome to carry in their hearts and minds. Perhaps they will hear officials such as the President speak of freedom, punishment, and other loaded issues. One of our jobs is to place these statements in terms they can understand. Depending upon their age and readiness, point out cause and effect, lessons to be learned, and how different philosophies sometimes lead to conflict. Some parents may use these events as an opportunity to supply correct information about the larger issue of terrorism before kids come to conclusions based upon misinformation.

Dr. Steven Richfield -


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