Helping Children Cope with the National Tragedy

September 12, 2001
The following information is being provided to all Montgomery County Public Schools and the community to help children and others cope with the impact of the ongoing national tragedy. In the aftermath of this terrible event, the following information was prepared from national and local professional resources* and focuses on addressing the emotional needs of children.

Common Emotional Reactions

Reactions may vary in nature and severity from child to child, based on age, temperament, personality and previous experience. These are normal reactions to an abnormal situation. Regardless of differences, there are some commonalities that exist in how children and staff feel when their lives are disrupted by disaster.

Loss of control: Crises such as this are something over which we have no control and are not able to stop. This feeling of loss of control can be overwhelming and frightening.

Loss of stability: Disasters interrupt the natural order of things. When stability is gone, life feels very threatening and trust may be destroyed. Try to return to a normal school routine as quickly as possible, for familiar routines are reassuring.

Self-centered reactions: It is normal for children of all ages to react to disaster with fear for their own safety. They may be intensely worried about what will happen to them. Young children in particular may be focused on safety concerns. It is important to provide repeated reassurance regarding safety and the outcome of the disaster as it relates to the children.

Common Stress Symptoms

Elementary School

-- irritability
-- anger, aggression, tantrums
-- clinginess
-- poor concentration
-- withdrawal from friends and activities
-- sleep difficulties, including nightmares
-- bedwetting

Middle School

-- physical complaints such as headaches and stomachaches
-- poor school performance
-- withdrawal from friends
-- sleep disturbances
-- loss of appetite
-- increased anger and conflict with parents and peers

High School

-- agitation
-- lack of energy
-- lessened interest in peers
-- irresponsible or delinquent behavior
-- physical complaints
-- sleep disturbances
-- eating difficulties
-- poor concentration
-- anger or aggression towards parents or peers

How Adults Can Help

-- Share the facts in a calm and caring manner.

-- Remind children that teasing and taunting people from diverse cultures is not tolerated.

-- Provide a vehicle for expressing fears and anxiety, such as journal writing or drawing.

-- Ensure that the information you give is appropriate to the developmental level of the child and is stated in a vocabulary that can be understood.

-- Clarify misconceptions and restate information as necessary.

-- Allow opportunities to talk about the situation. Listen closely to fears and concerns.

-- Control panic among children by remaining calm yourself.

-- Be flexible and allow time in your routine to address concerns as they arise.

-- Reassure children that their emotional responses are normal responses to an abnormal situation; to some extent, every one is afraid. It's all right to be afraid and to talk about it.

-- Acknowledge that there is some uncertainty about what will happen next, but many adults are working together to ensure everyone's safety.

-- Ask children what things they have done in the past to help them through difficult times. List these activities and encourage the use of similar strategies.

-- Talk about how children can support one another.

-- Encourage children to make healthy choices in what they eat and drink and to allow more time for sleep and relaxation.

-- Tell children that it is okay to turn off the TV or to change the channel so that they don't become overloaded with disaster information.

-- Don't overlook the positive events. Point out that, while many people were hurt in this tragedy, many were not injured and many of the injured will recover.

-- Look for stories of heroism and bravery in the face of the disaster and talk about how this crisis brought out the best in people from all over the world who want to help.

-- Assure children that they will be all right and that life will continue.

-- Be alert for children whose reactions seem especially intense or unusual. Consult with the school counselor if you have concerns or questions.

The Montgomery County Crisis Center also provides a free resource available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available at 240-777-4000.

*Note: This material was developed by the MCPS Department of Student Services from local expertise and resources provided by the National Association of School Psychologists; the American Psychological Association; the Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children; and "Coping with Crisis: Lessons Learned" by Scott Poland and Jami S. McCormick, © Sopris West, 1999.

This statement is also available as PDF files in various languages below:

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