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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 3, 2001

The September 11th attack
Parents' calm manner eases children's flying fears

 •  When to consider professional help

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

The best thing Patrick Collins did for his family after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

He stayed home.

The United Airlines pilot, who flies from Boston to New York as did the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center, snagged vacation the week after the attacks.

"That really helped," said his wife, Barbara, an at-home mom in Kane'ohe. "It helped make everything seem normal."

Which was important for their 15-year-old daughter, Emilie, who was concerned about her dad going back to work, especially on that particular route.

"She was happy to have him around," Barbara Collins said. "He was around the house and able to talk to her about it. And it just seemed like life as usual."

It's not uncommon for children to be fearful, especially after being bombarded with graphic images of the New York attacks. They may be resistant to traveling by plane or worried when their parents have an out-of-town meeting or business trip.

But there are ways parents can make their children feel more at ease about flying. And in time, a trip to Disneyland will be received by cheers instead of tears.

But first things first: How are parents coping with the situation?

"To me, the more important thing is how the parents are dealing with the national crisis," said Dr. Marv Mathews, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente. "Are they modeling the kind of measured, balanced response for the kids?"

School-age children, in particular, will pick up behaviors and emotions from their parents, who are the most important people in their lives at this point, he said. "They'll just pick up the vibes, the energy within the family. If there's a lot of tension, they'll feel it and regress."

If a parent is afraid to fly, there's a good chance the child will also have reason to fear plane rides, as well.

"The parent needs to deal with that however that needs to be done," Mathews said. "Postpone a trip, seek support from friends, family, church counselors, if necessary. They have to deal with it themselves before giving support to their kids."

And when addressing their children's anxieties about flying, parents should remain calm and matter-of-fact.

"They also need to manage their own anxieties about flying first," said Dr. Pamela Merez, clinical psychologist at Kapi'olani Counseling Center. "That's really important."

Normally, most children are more excited than anxious about plane trips. But if they have been exposed to the barrage of images of planes crashing into the twin towers and the Pentagon, they may feel uneasy about anyone they love boarding a plane. And that fear isn't exclusive to children.

"It's not an easy time," said Dr. Ronald Hino, a pediatrician at Straub Pearlridge. "A lot of people are afraid even going down the street or going to big events like football games where there's a crowd or lots of people around."

What parents can do is reassure their children that what they saw on TV doesn't happen every day.

"Let the child know that almost all planes are safe and that the bad things that happen are rare," said Merez, who deals primarily with children and adolescents. "This doesn't happen all the time."

Explain to children that there are people who are trying to make sure everyone is safe, she added. And use terms that young children can understand.

"Keep it simple," Merez said. "Talk about the president, the mayor, the police — people they can relate to."

Hino, a father of three, has flown since the terrorist attacks. His children, who range in age from 14 to 20, were old enough to know that their father would be safe. With reassurance, of course.

"What I tell them is that since the incident the security is 10 times tighter," he said, a day before his flight to Los Angeles. "It's a lot safer, I think, to travel."

Experts also recommend that since most of these fears stem from what the children have seen on TV, parents should limit the exposure they get to the repeated images of the attacks. That can cause anxiety, Merez said.

"Don't have the TV on all the time," she said. "And watch with the children. I wouldn't put on the TV unless the child was interested in it."