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Dr. Steven Marans: Talking to children about violence

Dr. Steven Marans is the head of the National Center of Children Exposed to Violence at Yale University's Child Study Center. He joined the chat room from Connecticut.

CNN: Welcome to Newsroom, Dr. Marans.

STEVEN MARANS: Good morning. I'm glad I can join you. I'm speaking to you from the Yale Child Study Center, which is home to the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence.

CNN: Dr. Marans, this incident has presented many challenges for parents and teachers. Can you give us some guidance as to how much we should be talking to kids about these events? Won't it greatly depend upon the age of the child?

MARANS: Yes, it does depend on the age of the child. But perhaps the most important issue is that children need to have adults who are available to listen to what is on their minds. That it is the greatest importance that teachers and parents are able to demonstrate to children that they can tolerate hearing about all sorts of ideas and strong feelings. Parents and teachers need to listen carefully to their children in order to understand the issues that are uppermost in their children's minds.

The other issue is that for all of us, children and adults alike, there is no greater fear than that of losing someone that we love. And that there is no greater fear than being frightened of damage to one's own body or to the body's of people that we love.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Don't you believe children should not be exposed to this media coverage all day?

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MARANS: I would agree that children should not be exposed to unremitting coverage of the events. There are, for example, younger children under the age of eight and perhaps a little bit older, where the exposure is more overwhelming than informative. It is important however that parents gauge what kind of information children are asking for and to help children find the answers to their questions based on available information.

However, too much information and repetition of the scenes of Tuesday's tragedy may overwhelm children rather than helping them to discuss their questions, concerns and fears. When children are watching, of whatever age, it is most beneficial when parents can watch the news with them.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Marans. Children today are way more sophisticated than we were. Just tell them the truth on what happened. They can cope extremely well. Don't you think?

MARANS: Children need to know the truth and part of that truth is that this event was unanticipated and a tragedy occurred. Children need their parents' support in recognizing that bad things can happen, that we can feel afraid and saddened. And that while many children can cope, all of us, even adults, need support in being able to bear and tolerate the enormous feelings that have been aroused by these tragic events.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How will you prevent the children from growing up into hateful adults considering this terrorism?

MARANS: Often, children and adults respond with hatred and rage when we feel most helpless in the face of overwhelming experiences. These events remind us that as families, and communities, and as a nation, we are at our best when we recognize the strength of our feelings both in terms of our anger as well as the feelings of sadness. It is the role of our nation's leaders to determine the course that will ensure that our country stands firm against acts of terror and that responses are determined by what is best for our country, not only the attempt to seek revenge.

Lastly, [with regard to] the events that are stimulating this discussion, we also need to remind our children and demonstrate to them that in that terrible moment of crisis, our country is pulling together, that we have seen enormous acts of heroism of communities and individuals supporting one another, and that as an entire nation we are truly one and indivisible. These values, part of being an American, are values that we also have an opportunity to convey to our children -- and our demonstration of the goodness and generosity in others, especially in a time of crisis.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: I have heard it said that adults should refrain from being emotional. Is it not important to show children that it is ok to be upset and that crying is ok?

MARANS: Yes. I think that there is an important distinction to be made between demonstrating our sadness and our frustration and a demonstration or a presentation of enormous anxiety and fear. Children often learn that they can cope with and tolerate their own feelings of sadness when they see the adults around them able to cope with their feelings. It is perhaps more constructive for adults to help children put their feelings into words and to recognize the range of their feelings, then for example, to only demonstrate the adult's own rage and fear.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: My four year old thinks it's a simple fire. I agree with him on that for his sake. How do you feel about that?

MARANS: I think what is most important is hearing the four-year-old's ideas and hearing if there are any further questions that the four-year-old has. In addition, it is important to be able to look for signs of distress that the child may demonstrate in behaviors rather than in words. When behaviors are disrupted when children are demonstrating their anxiety, it is often a signal to try to expand the discussion by asking the child to describe more of their ideas about what they have seen or heard.

CNN: Most would assume that kids would be afraid, but when my 12-year old saw the pictures, he seemed not to grasp the reality of the horror -- his first reaction being that the collapse of the buildings looked "cool." Has he become de-sensitized or is it just too "unreal" for all of us?

MARANS: I think the short answer is that is it too unreal for all of us and that when we are unable to digest the enormity of the situation we quite automatically separate out, divide off, the feelings that most overwhelming. To be able to see a building collapse as if one is watching an adventure film is far more tolerable than immediately grasping that the victims are mothers, father, sisters, brothers, neighbors, friends, fellow citizens. This reaction is quite a normal one.

I think that with adolescents in particular the idea of sharing painful and vulnerable feelings goes counter to their own trends in development. Rather than forcing them into discussions about their feelings, parents and teachers can encourage them in the expression in their ideas by listening in whatever form their concerns may take.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why should we not address the psyche of the act itself? Children should be educated in the fact this is a tool to instill fear and chaos among us.

MARANS: I believe that older children can be talked to about the aims of terrorism. In doing so, adults also have the opportunity to instill in their children values that have to do with what it means to be an American citizen. What it means to stand firm in defense against the principles against freedom and liberty. And what it means to stand together as a nation, resolute in our determination to not collapse with the collapse of buildings and the loss of life. It is part of our job as adults to demonstrate and help our children to tolerate the feelings that accompany horrific tragedy and to join together in resisting the very aims of terrorist intent.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

MARANS: America is an extraordinary country. In the best traditions of this country we do not turn away from challenge but fact it head on in order to move ahead. In the face of the enormous loss of life and threat to everyone's sense of security, it is especially important to recognize that strong feelings need not defeat us but become the inspiration for moving ahead together, recovering, and supporting all of our citizens in the wake of what is a family and national tragedy. Lastly, further information can be reached at:

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Steven Marans.

MARANS: Thank you.

Dr. Marans joined from New Haven, CT. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Thursday, September 13, 2001.

• Talk about it, counselors advise
September 11, 2001

• National Center for Children Exposed to Violence

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