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Children need 'reassurance' in face of tragedy

BETHESDA, Maryland (CNN) -- How do you tell children about Tuesday's unprecedented tragedy? How do you reassure them while also trying to explain what happened? CNN's Kathy Slobogin talked to Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell, a certified trauma specialist and head of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. The non-profit group has trained thousands of disaster response workers.

CNN: On such a horrific day, a lot of parents feel terrified and helpless. What advice would you give them for talking to their children?

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Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell: I think one of the most important things is for parents to remain as calm as possible under the circumstances, to keep their emotions in check, because children will react to what they see around them. So it's very important that they maintain calmness, that they maintain a schedule, that the family should eat about the same time that they usually eat. Bedtimes should be about the same.

They should also talk with their children. Try to reassure them that they are safe, that this was an incident that is not directly going to happen on their street, their block and their home.

CNN: Should you tell your children that they are in fact safe?

Mitchell: I think you need to tell them more on a family basis that it is unlikely that every family in the United States is targeted, that it's not going to be in everybody's living room.

CNN: What if children ask, "How could this happen?" This is supposed to be the most powerful, safest country in the world.

Mitchell: That is one of the things that parents can say -- one of the great things about America is that it is an open society. But by being an open society, we don't have a police state, we don't have intelligence assets a lot of other countries do, so by being open we do become more vulnerable. However, strong open societies usually prevail in the end.

CNN: The images on television are riveting for a lot of us, but possibly frightening for a lot of children. Is it a good idea to simply turn the TV off?

Mitchell: My recommendation would be to turn the television off. Read to the child, play some games with the child, try to keep the child or children preoccupied with other things.

I don't think we want to make believe that nothing happened ... but at the same time, I think it's important to say a terrible thing happened, but life is going to go on and we're going to do what we can do to keep you safe and to keep the family safe, and do those sorts of things that keep the family together.

CNN: What does it do to children to see those images of buildings tumbling down over and over again?

Mitchell: Children neurologically are not well suited to deal with extremes of trauma, so when they see this kind of stuff, right now it may look like some of the movies they have seen on television. Except in this case people don't get up and act in the next (movie). In this case they're injured because they're injured or they're dead because they're dead. So it can be very traumatizing for children to see these images on TV. They don't understand what this is all about...So that's why I'm suggesting that we not allow an excessive amount of TV for children at this particular point.

CNN: What kind of behavior should parents expect to see in their children?

Mitchell: Children may lose their appetite, they may resort to bed-wetting, they may have some acting out behavior, some disciplinary problems. They may want to seek to sleep in a parent's room. That may be ok for a couple of days. So alterations to what is typical may be ok for a while until there is some calming of this.

They may draw out pictures of this and that's actually helpful, to allow them to express their feelings and reactions, to allow them to draw diagrams and pictures of this tragedy as they interpret their world.

In a world that seems changed forever, Dr. Mitchell says children need something they can count on.

Mitchell: Children need to be hugged, children need to be held. They need reassurance that the world will continue to function, that there will be a tomorrow. That there will be a world for them.

Schools struggle to help students understand terrorist attacks
September 12, 2001

International Critical Incident Stress Foundation Helping Your Child Deal With the Terrorist Tragedy
National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Dealing with the Affereffects of Terrorism

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