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Coping with Terrorism

Psychoanalysts offer their expertise for helping children and adults deal with the trauma of terrorist attacks.

The trauma experienced from terrorist attacks will provoke a range of immediate and delayed emotional reactions in both adults and children. These may include anxiety, depression, rage, insomnia, nightmares and irritability.

The members of the American Psychoanalytic Association offer these words of advice:

  1. When you talk to children about these events, tailor your comments to their differing emotional and intellectual capacities.
  2. Do what you can to buffer them from the unremitting media coverage; this tends to get people (children, too) stirred up.
  3. Do what you can to contain their anxiety and your own. A reminder that this kind of thing is VERY unlikely to happen anywhere tomorrow or the next day would be part of the message. A second part would be reassurance that parents and other grownups are going to be especially careful to keep everyone safe.
  4. Some sense of constructive action can also be helpful. For adults, this might take the form of donations (money, blood, expertise, etc.). It wouldn't hurt for children to know that their parents are doing what they can to help. Some children may have ideas of their own on how they may help, and we can support them in these efforts. 
  5. Finally, it's probably a good idea to offer children an opportunity to periodically share what THEY have understood of what they've heard. We all know that children hear lots more than we intend them to hear; they also get to work immediately trying to make sense of what they've heard. Some questions from a bright little three-and-a-half-year-old girl (who has two older brothers) give a flavor for this process: 
    • ”Why did they do this, since they were just killing themselves by doing so?"
    • ”If the bad guys were on the plane, why are people talking about punishing the persons who did this? Aren't they already dead?”
    • “Why didn't the people who got killed just go to the doctor so they would get better and wouldn't die?"
    • “How exactly did the people die? Did they burn up?”

To repeat, when talking with children:

  1. Make what you tell them fit their abilities to take it in.
  2. Buffer children (and yourselves) from too much exposure.
  3. Contain their anxiety via thoughtful reassurance -- it's unlikely to happen here, and we're being VERY careful to make sure it doesn't.
  4. Constructive actions to help may provide some sense of mastery -- to adults and children alike.

(The above suggestions come from Paul Brinich, PhD, who is Clinical Professor, Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)