Helping children deal with coverage of Sept 11

By REBECCA WALSH

One year after the terror attacks on America, a survey has found that nearly 40 per cent of New York's children are still struggling emotionally.

The survey of 919 families in Greater New York, commissioned by the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York and published in Newsweek, found 40 per cent of children still felt anxious about leaving home.

Other children had trouble sleeping and many worried about their parents' safety.

In New Zealand, television and radio broadcasts were the closest most children got to the tragedy.

But with commemorative coverage hitting our screens, and threats of a war against Iraq intensifying, how much should children see and how should parents handle their own fears?

Psychologist Steven Hayns said children were increasingly internet savvy and hooking in to current events around the world, so the fears experienced by American children could be shared by New Zealand children.

Although many children would have seen the images of the twin towers collapsing and people falling from the buildings - the American survey found 93 per cent of children saw the attacks, most on TV - Mr Hayns said parents should try to ensure very young children did not see repeated footage.

They should also help children to understand - using simple language - that the images are historical.

For children aged 8 to 13 he suggested watching coverage with them, talking it through and gauging what they know. Parents should emphasise what had been done since September 11 last year to protect people - increased airport security, for example.

The Royal College of Australian and New Zealand Psychiatrists wants coverage of the terrorist attacks to be shown at adult viewing times because of the effect on children.

Mr Hayns said parents had a responsibility to portray as clear and honest a picture as possible without "feeding the fear".

Older children should be taught how to dispute their own anxious thought patterns - if they are worried about a bomb being dropped on New Zealand, what is the evidence for and against that.

Parents should talk to the children without "catastrophising".

"You don't want people minimising things either, these are serious issues," he said.

"It is important for young teens to understand current events.

"However, the risks have to be portrayed without exaggerating them."

A poll by Newsday of New York City residents found nearly half thought about September 11 every day and just over 70 per cent feared another attack.

Mr Hayns said some children and adults tended to internalise feelings of anxiety, which might go unnoticed by others.

"If you have a predisposition to anxiety, you are fearful and worried about things, then graphic TV images and concern about possible war with Iraq makes you even more vulnerable."

Children pick up on adult anxiety and responses to events. Adults who are worried should seek support from another adult and not load it on their children.

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