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Helping your kids feel safe

QUESTION: I am in shock over the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., and I'm worried about how my child will react. What can I say to reassure her and help her understand what this all means?

ANSWER: It is natural for your child to feel that her sense of safety has been threatened. And you, too, experience empathy and shock for the families of the victims of this tragedy. Staying physically close to you may be your child's way of coping. Your presence alone is immediately soothing, and can help her to recover her sense of security. Use the following guidelines and discussion to help you and your child cope through this initial period of shock. Stay connected to loved ones during the first phase of this shock, while information is gathered. Talk with friends, and co-workers, but also do what you can to maintain your schedule within reasonable parameters. Maintaining daily routine is soothing for children and adults alike.

Establish a safe environment for talking about feelings. Show your willingness to talk with your child about her feelings, but do not force her to talk. She will express herself when she is ready. Let her know you, too, are stunned and saddened. Answer her questions honestly, but do not try to explain anything you cannot understand yourself. Refrain from giving false promises, "This can never happen to you," but do convey a sense that you believe this tragedy will cause people to actively address the situation.

Be able to address or actively respond to the traumatic event. Being witness to a crime is traumatic because the witness was helpless to stop the crime. In a true sense, we are all witnesses to this tragedy, and as such need to actively respond to heal. Let her know you are deeply concerned, and will be talking with other parents and teachers about safety and how to help those in need.

Protect children, especially young children from repetitive, violent imagery in the media. Be careful, too, to take breaks from news and images that overwhelm you as an adult. Take a walk, and shut off the television. Consider turning on the radio, rather than the television, or check in on the internet for news updates. This allows you to control the amount of input your child is vulnerable to in your home environment. Remember, these are traumatic pictures.

Older children will need more talking, debriefing, but again, put limits on the amount of news input your children experience. Do not leave older children alone in front of the television news. Stay available to them to answer questions and reassure them. Encourage teens to become involved in postive ways to help in the local community. (Giving blood is one example). Seek out community forums, such as churches and schools for emotional support at this time.

Over the next few weeks, make time to consult with teachers, administrators and other parents. Teachers are well aware that students use poetry and writing assignments to work through traumatic life processes. Art, drama and music projects, as well as community gardens, have been utilized to stablilize after and during crisis.

Connecting with others allows us to express the shock, pain and grief rather than repress it. Children who do repress fear or grief initially, may experience delayed stress symptoms later. A pattern of sleeplessness, anxiety, nightmares, or even depression may result if overwhelming feelings have no opportunity to be released. Encourage your child's physical, creative and artistic avenues of expression at this time.

Practice relaxation, yoga , and other calming activities. Your calm will benefit your child. Do what you need to help yourself center and soothe yourself, so that you can soothe your child.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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