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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Helping children cope

• Typical reactions after trauma
• Sources for help

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Staff Writer

Samuel Alaff, 6, and his family spent three hours on the ground at Lindbergh Field in San Diego yesterday, instead of on their flight to Pittsburgh for what was to be a vacation. Airports were closed and planes were grounded nationwide following the attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Associated Press

By now, your child has probably absorbed hours of graphic footage of yesterday's terrorist attacks on the Mainland and their aftermath.

How do children deal with this kind of information? How does anyone?

Bruce Chorpita, associate professor of psychology at UH-Manoa, was dealing with that very question yesterday morning.

Chorpita was awakened yesterday by a 3 a.m. phone call from his wife's brother in New York, who had witnessed the attacks there and had to run for cover when the World Trade Center collapsed.

They were in constant contact all morning, and his brother- and sister-in-law had gone to give blood when Chorpita was interviewed before daybreak in Hawai'i, just as the reports were trickling in.

Chorpita, a new father himself, said the first thing to do is talk about the events with your children and acknowledge your fears as well as theirs.

When it comes to helping young minds understand a catastrophe like this one, tailor the talk and the action to the child, said Chorpita, a clinical child psychologist.

If your child is comfortable going to school, by all means send him to school. But if he seems too frightened, "I'd say, stick together," Chorpita said. "Don't put your kid in a situation where they're uncomfortable."

Dr. Mark Dunn, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, grappled with that yesterday morning. His high school freshman wanted to go to school yesterday, but he decided to keep his 3-year-old daughter at home. For some children, "insecurity is going to be intensified if they're away from their home," he said.

Schools have counselors available for crisis counseling, a district official said, and teachers spent time yesterday talking with students about the attacks.

Roman Catholic schools held prayer services acknowledging the tragedy, according to Patrick Downes, a spokesman for the Honolulu diocese. Other religious schools did the same.

At Sacred Hearts Academy, a recorded message greeted callers, telling them that classes would take place, but assuring concerned parents they should "feel free to keep your daughter home." Sacred Hearts spokeswoman Reme Bolante said all after-school activities were canceled until further notice.

One mistake parents can make is to allow themselves to succumb to feelings of helplessness or grief, forgetting the effect this will have on children, or assuming children are too young to understand what's going on.

"Kids have to be spoken to, be told what's happening," Chorpita said. "Otherwise, they'll find out one way or another that something bad has happened. It's a question of explaining it to them in a way they understand, and reassuring them that it doesn't mean something is going to happen to them."

It's one of the times when children will have a lot of "why, why whys?"

"You want to try to address their questions," Chorpita said. "They need to understand what this is about. There's no hiding these things from children."

If you have family on the Mainland, the children might want to talk to their relatives, or hear that they're OK, he said.

Christine Heath, a family counselor, said it may help parents to focus on helping their children. "The most important thing is to stay as calm as we can, stay in the here and now, find out what is happening," she said.

But nobody handles this kind of crisis well, she said. "We haven't had an act of war (in the United States) since Pearl Harbor," said Heath. "As Americans, we aren't able to process this kind of tragedy."

Let kids talk, she advised. And try not to be so caught up in the event itself that you're unable to reassure them that we'll do the best we can to keep you safe.

"That gives you a job yourself," she said. "As you calm down, you'll settle down more. ... We have to just really take care of ourselves, focus on loving each other now."

She suggested to watch for post-trauma symptoms: "We've got to listen to kids, watch for strange behavior, things that are out of the ordinary." If you notice anything, ask them to talk to you, she said, posing the question: "What's on your mind about this?"

Heath herself was having a hard time swallowing the facts of thousands killed, thousands injured, millions frightened — events that until now were beyond most Americans' experience. "You really can't process it," she said yesterday, after finding out her husband had taken an earlier-than-expected flight from Dulles and was stranded in Los Angeles. "This is the first time I've ever experienced this. I'm not thinking how bad it is."

If we stay calm, we can talk about our feelings of vulnerability and not let it escalate or add to the chaos, Heath said.

"Stay in the here and now," she said. "Don't go to the worst-case scenario."

In Hawai'i, we have the added vulnerability of living on islands, of being in the middle of the ocean, she said. "We've had a vulnerability since Pearl Harbor that we can be attacked and it can come suddenly," she said.

Psychiatrist Dunn agrees that this wake-up call will hit hard: "I don't think any of us were prepared for this," he said. "It's scary. It's starting to happen on our soil, too. It takes away that sense of security that all of us have."

He'll be giving his daughter lots of hugs. "Do whatever you can to protect them," he said.

Older children can deal more with the facts. They'll focus on the injustice of the attacks, what can be done about them, who's responsible. Younger ones probably will have a more emotional reaction.

With schools on Hawai'i military bases closed yesterday, fears were heightened for those families. "Kids with parents in the military, now that Mommy and Daddy might get called away," are going to have their own set of worries, said Dunn.

How can parents cope themselves? Sacred Hearts' Bolante was coming up with a plan and talking to parents. But in between, she listened to news reports and talk radio after checking in with her daughter on the Mainland. "The best therapy is listening to the calls to the radio station," she said.

"We need, as people, the ability to share and talk about what's going on," said Dunn. "It's important to support one another. When there's a national tragedy like this, it affects everybody."

The schools have a close eye out for children who may have relatives involved, officials said, suggesting that families who need emergency or crisis counseling should turn to state health and education agencies.

Dunn said it's important to let people express their feelings: "Different people emote differently. Some people may be so overcome that they're unable to function. Other people may seem put together.

" ... Just be willing to help each other out by listening, acknowledging."

• • •

Typical reactions after trauma

Children's reactions may appear immediately or weeks after a traumatic experience. Even children not actually involved in crisis may experience fear and anxiety because of their parents' reactions and exposure to news reports. Watch for:

  • • Five years and younger: Fear of separation from parent, crying, screaming, immobility, aimless motion, trembling, clinging, regression to early behaviors such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting.
  • • Six to 11 years: Extreme withdrawal, disruptive behavior, inattentiveness, regression to earlier behaviors, sleep problems, outbursts of anger or aggression at school, stomach aches or other physical symptoms, problems with schoolwork, depression.
  • • Twelve to 17 years: responses like those of adults, including flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, depression, drug abuse, problems with peers, anti-social behavior, school avoidance, sleep disturbance, confusion.

Children need to feel safe, secure

Children, who are keenly aware of the emotional environment around them, need to be made to feel safe and secure and to understand — at an age-appropriate level — what's going on.

  • • Explain what happened, simply and factually. When you don't know, say so. School-age children may benefit from seeing on a map how far away the incidents were.
  • • Encourage children to express feelings; allow them to be sad. Ask questions to elicit reactions, feelings, fears.
  • • Let children know it's normal to be upset or to feel fearful.
  • • Reassure children that you will take care of them; stay with them as much as possible.
  • • Problems commonly occur at bedtime; try to follow a calming bedtime routine.
  • • Don't criticize regressive behavior (thumb-sucking, clinging); be accepting and reassuring.
  • • If yours is a religious household, prayer, reading religious works or other rituals will reassure children.
  • • Deal with your own fears; talk to others, do what calms you.

Source: National Institute of Mental Health

• • •

Sources for help

    • Information and referrals

    • Parent Line: 526-1222
    • Dept. of Health, O'ahu Community Mental Health Center: 832-5770