A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope
Tips for Parents and Teachers
The recent tragic acts of terrorism are unprecedented in the American
experience. Children, like many people, may be confused or frightened
by the news and will look to adults for information and guidance on
how to react. Parents and school personnel can help children cope first
and foremost by establishing a sense of safety and security. As the
nation learns more about what happened and why, adults can continue
to help children work through their emotions and perhaps even use the
process as a learning experience.
All Adults Should:
1. Model calm and control. Children take their emotional cues
from the significant adults in their lives. Avoid appearing anxious
2. Reassure children that they are safe and so are the other
important adults in their lives. Explain that these buildings were targeted
for their symbolism and that schools, neighborhoods, and regular office
buildings are not at risk.
3. Remind them that trustworthy people are in charge. Explain
that the government emergency workers, police, firefighters, doctors,
and the military are helping people who are hurt and are working to
ensure that no further tragedies occur.
4. Let children know that it is okay to feel upset. Explain
that all feelings are okay when a tragedy like this occurs. Let children
talk about their feelings and help put them into perspective. Even
anger is okay, but children may need help and patience from adults to
assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.
5. Observe childrens emotional state. Depending on their
age, children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior,
appetite, and sleep patterns can also indicate a childs level
of grief, anxiety or discomfort. Children will express their emotions
differently. There is no right or wrong way to feel or express grief.
6. Look for children at greater risk. Children who have had
a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression
or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk
for severe reactions than others. Be particularly observant for those
who may be at risk of suicide. Seek the help of mental health professional
if you are at all concerned.
7. Tell children the truth. Dont try to pretend the event
has not occurred or that it is not serious. Children are smart. They
will be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what
8. Stick to the facts. Dont embellish or speculate about
what has happened and what might happen. Dont dwell on the scale
or scope of the tragedy, particularly with young children.
9. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate. Early
elementary school children need brief, simple information that should
be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives
will not change. Upper elementary and early middle school children
will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are
safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance
separating reality from fantasy. Upper middle school and high school
students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence
in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about
how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. They
will be more committed to doing something to help the victims and affected
community. For all children, encourage them to verbalize their thoughts
and feelings. Be a good listener!
10. Monitor Your Own Stress Level. Dont ignore
your own feelings of anxiety, grief, and anger. Talking to friends,
family members, religious leaders, and mental health counselors can
help. It is okay to let your children know that you are sad, but that
you believe things will get better. You will be better able to support
your children if you can express your own emotions in a productive manner.
Get appropriate sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
What Parents Can Do
1. Focus on your children over the next week or so. Tell them
you love them and everything will be okay. Try to help them understand
what has happened, keeping in mind their developmental level.
2. Make time to talk with your children. Remember if you do
not talk to your children about this incident someone else will. Take
some time and determine what you wish to say.
3. Stay close to your children. Your physical presence will
reassure them and give you the opportunity to monitor their reaction.
Many children will want actual physical contact. Give plenty of hugs.
Let them sit close to you, and make sure to take extra time at bedtime
to cuddle and to reassure them that they are loved and safe.
4. Limit your childs television viewing of these events.
If they must watch, watch with them for a brief time; then turn
the set off. Dont sit mesmerized re-watching the same events
over and over again.
5. Maintain a "normal" routine. To the extent possible stick
to your familys normal routine for dinner, homework, chores, bedtime,
etc., but dont be inflexible. Children may have a hard
time concentrating on schoolwork or falling asleep at night.
6. Spend extra time reading or playing quiet games with your children
before bed. These activities are calming, foster a sense of closeness
and security, and reinforce a sense of normalcy. Spend more time tucking
them in. Let them sleep with a light on if they ask for it.
7. Safeguard your childrens physical health. Stress
can take a physical toll on children as well as adults. Make sure your
children get appropriate sleep, exercise, and nutrition.
8. Consider praying or thinking hopeful thoughts for the victims
and their families. It may be a good time to take your children
to your house of worship, write a poem, or draw a picture to help your
child express their feelings and feel that they are somehow supporting
the victims and their families.
9. Find out what resources your school has in place to
help children cope. Most schools are likely to be open and often
are a good place for children to regain a sense of normalcy. Being
with their friends and teachers can help. Schools should also have
a plan for making counseling available to children and adults who need
What Schools Can Do
1. Assure children that they are safe and that schools are
well prepared to take care of all children at all times.
2. Maintain structure and stability within the schools. It
would be best, however, not to have tests or major projects within the
next few days.
3. Have a plan for the first few days back at school. Include
school psychologists, counselors, and crisis team members in planning
the schools response.
4. Provide teachers and parents with information about what
to say and do for children in school and at home.
5. Have teachers provide information directly to their students,
not during the public address announcements.
6. Have school psychologists and counselors available to talk
to student and staff who may need or want extra support.
7. Be aware of students who may have recently experienced a personal
tragedy or a have personal connection to victims or their families.
Even a child who has been to visit the Pentagon or the World Trade
Center may feel a personal loss. Provide these students extra support
and leniency if necessary.
8. Know what community resources are available for children
who may need extra counseling. School psychologists can be very helpful
in directing families to the right community resources.
9. Allow time for age appropriate classroom discussion and activities.
Do not expect teachers to provide all of the answers. They should ask
questions and guide the discussion, but not dominate it. Other activities
can include art and writing projects, play acting, and physical games.
10. Be careful not to stereotype people or countries that
might be home to the terrorists. Children can easily generalize
negative statements and develop prejudice. Talk about tolerance and
justice versus vengeance. Stop any bullying or teasing of students
11. Refer children who exhibit extreme anxiety, fear or anger
to mental health counselors in the school. Inform their parents.
12. Provide an outlet for students desire to help.
Consider making get well cards or sending letters to the families and
survivors of the tragedy, or writing thank you letters to doctors, nurses,
and other health care professionals as well as emergency rescue workers,
firefighters and police.
13. Monitor or restrict viewing of this horrendous event
as well as the aftermath.
For information on helping children and youth with this crisis, contact
NASP at (301) 657-0270 or visit NASPs website at www.nasponline.org. Materials on related
topics will be posted over the next few days.
NASP represents 22,000 school psychologists and related professionals
throughout the United States and abroad. NASPs mission is to
promote educationally and psychologically healthy environments for all
children and youth by implementing research-based, effective programs
that prevent problems, enhance independence and promote optimal learning.
This is accomplished through state-of-the-art research and training,
advocacy, ongoing program evaluation, and caring professional service.