EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: How much we should share with children about our own concerns, fears, and anxieties?
DR. PERRY: Young children interpret new and overwhelming experiences through the filter of the adults around them. When kids see completely overwhelmed adults, their own fears will be magnified. This is not to say we should not show our emotions, but a balance must be reached between "too much, too often" and "no feelings ever expressed." While we often want to be strong for children and not show our feelings, children see through this. They perceive changes in daily patterns, tone of voice, tears, hushed conversations, pre-occupation with news. They know something is wrong. And they have heard many things and seen many images-fire, death, destruction, war, terror. Children will feel better about their own intense emotions if they know that it is normal for people who see such horrible things to have strong emotions. Share that you have strong feelings too. Use words to explain how these feelings come and go. And then use your smile and your touch to reassure and comfort children.
ECT: How exactly can we know how much to tell a child?
DR. PERRY: Teachers can be healthy filters of information for children. First, find out what the child has heard and what she thinks and feels. Young children often make false assumptions about the causes of major events. After the World Trade Center crash, one 3-year-old boy said to me, "Twenty planes crashed." He didn't realize he was seeing the same thing over and over on television. These distortions can magnify a child's sense of fear. You should correct these misperceptions with simple, age-appropriate explanations.
Take the child's lead to help you know when, what, and how much to say. After you have some sense of what she knows and feels, gauge your answers to her concerns. You will probably find that you are having many short discussions rather than one "big" talk. This is healthy-these little discussions make it easier for children to digest huge topics.
Teachers shouldn't feel that they need to have all the answers. Some aspects of this will forever remain beyond understanding. You can explain that you just don't know, and that sometimes we will never know why some things happen. When the child sees that you are still the solid and caring person she knows, she'll feel safer. Constantly reassure the child that her home, school, and community are safe.
Responding To Children's Stress
After witnessing a traumatic event either in person or through the media, children can feel profound distress and can exhibit a host of emotional, behavioral, and physical problems. Here's how to help.
Routines That Soothe
- Stick to your schedule. When we keep to comforting routines, we reassure children that the world is going on and that there is safety at home, at school, and in the community.
- Add extra comfort. Take the time to read an extra story at naptime, to sing every verse of a familiar song, and to give extra hugs and pats on the back.
- Use reassuring language. Saying, "Have a good nap, your snack will be ready when you wake up" lets children know what to expect and that everything is in its place.-Dr. Perri Klass
Dr. Perri Klass is associate professor of pediatrics, Boston University School of Medicine, and medical director of Reach Out and Read.