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How To Help Your Child Understand Current Events Relating To Terrorism

Whenever Frankie and Kristin Ciccone see footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, they are afraid that their father won't come home. Frank Ciccone was in Virginia in the U.S. Navy reserve on September 11, 2001, but when he came home two weeks later, the New York City detective headed straight for the 12-story pile of smoking twisted steel known as "the pile" where he worked on rescue crews trying to find survivors.

"The kids react every time," says Caroline Ciccone, their mother. Frankie, 12, is visibly frightened. Kristin, 16, is more reserved. "I worry more about her because she holds it in," says Caroline.

Feeling anxious about the war and living with heightened threats of terrorism is not restricted to families who are directly affected. Starting in mid-February, LIFENET, a free mental health referral service based in Ellicott City, Md., received more than 9,000 calls from people seeking professional help, a big increase over the number of calls received around the first anniversary of September 11.

One Family's Story

The Ciccone family was especially hard hit this time around. When the U.S. Navy sent Frank his orders in December, "Nothing helped to prepare the kids this time," says Caroline. "I tried not to make a catastrophe out of it, but nothing helped this time. I went into mourning when he told me he was leaving."

In the midst of updating their wills and ID cards, getting power of attorney and tackling overwhelming piles of paperwork, Caroline and Frank dedicated their remaining time together to being a family. "We indulged the kids," she says. "With Frank now stationed in Virginia, we speak on cell phones on a daily basis. We keep him in the loop about our lives, so he knows about the kids' sports schedules and homework."

Functioning as a single mom, Caroline sets the following clear priorities and sticks to them:

  • The kids are my priority. Their needs come first.
  • I have to let things go. Sometimes the house doesn't get cleaned, or the bills don't get paid on time.
  • We spend time with close friends and our extended family. They make me feel less isolated.
  • Working with children in the school system makes me forget about my problems. Kids make me laugh.

What Can You Do?

In addition to setting priorities, parents need to monitor their own anxiety. "Kids take cues from their parents," says Minna Barrett, Ph.D., director of South Nassau Communities Hospital's World Trade Center Family Center in Rockville Centre, N.Y. The WTC Family Center serves hundreds of families on Long Island who were directly affected by September 11.

Barrett has observed that children and teenagers have a tendency to replay the pictures of the planes hitting the towers. Even children who were not directly affected have displayed this pattern. Frederick Meyer, age 11, says that whenever he goes into Manhattan to see his mother he visualizes planes flying into the skyscrapers. His father, with whom he lives, is a Vietnam veteran and former Air National Guard pilot who refuses to let Frederick or his sister travel through any tunnels going in or out of the city. "It's easier to blow up a tunnel than a bridge," he says.

While understandable, a heightened state of generalized anxiety can spread from parents to teenagers and children very easily. Suburban schools practicing lockdown drills in case of a future biological, chemical or nuclear attack can feed into students' preexisting fears. "These times call for conscious parenting," says Barrett, who suggests that moms and dads sit down with kids to discuss perceptions and realities. "The situation is serious but you can take a look at your own situation and see whether your day-to-day circumstances have changed. Although kids want a stronger sense of security, you can help them to look at things realistically. Normal precautions are enough."

In those cases where teenagers have developed airplane phobias or who visualize planes flying into buildings, it can be helpful to acknowledge that you, as a parent, understand that 9/11 and the war have affected them deeply. "Teenagers are worried about their long-term prospects," says Barrett. "Their sense of personal possibilities is not foreshortened."

Parenting teenagers during these times means making yourself available in ways that are not intrusive. "You have to spend more time being parental in ways that are not obvious," says Barrett. She suggests letting your teenagers invite friends to the house or to the movies. Limit the amount of TV they watch, especially coverage of the war. Says Barrett, "If you meet their basic need for independence and safety, you can encourage things that are important to them which you then monitor."

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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