Terrorism has put new questions into the mouths of Port Washington youngsters, and parents often are at a loss for words.
"As much as we want to insulate children nowadays, it's extremely difficult," an expert on child psychology told parents at a recent meeting of Daly School's Home and School Association. "Kids' access to material via TV and the internet is amazing."
Director of the School Mental Health Alliance and Coordinator of Child Psychology at Schneider Children's Hospital, Rona Novick, Ph.D., said teachers and parents have new pressures:
"Being a protector is much more than what it was before. It's a new, stressful challenge for all of us."
During the meeting chaired by Daly H.S.A. co-president Lisa Alpert and attended at Daly Elementary School by Daly Principal Jeffrey Morris, Ed.D., and dozens of Port Washington parents, the mental health professional offered an acronym for guidance in helping children cope with potentially scary realities.
The new acronym is L.E.A.D. and each letter cues to a different part of her approach to dealing with the current crisis. The letters stand for Listen, Explain, Assure, and three "D's": Distract, Direct and Demonstrate.
Start by Listening. When children speak, they may say something that ought not to be taken literally. Read between the lines.
For example, a 9-year-old child asks, "Why do other people hate us?" That child probably does not want a geopolitical treatise that traces the recent history of Afghanistan and how Muslim extremists feel threatened by our freedom and multicultural society. She may just want reassurance she herself is loved or that Americans are among the most admired people in the world, despite a handful of bullies.
"Listen, and be aware of what she is actually asking about, versus what she seems to be asking for," the psychologist said.
The next letter is "E" and stands for Explain. "Our explanations have to fit our child's developmental level and personality," she noted. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to talking with kids.
For example, students recently were alerted to be careful collecting Halloween candy, because it could be tainted. One child feared being poisoned by the candy. He relaxed when his parents advised him to visit only homes of friends, and assured him the poison story was only a rumor. Another child with a different personality might continue to be obsessed with danger, despite reassurance, and throw out his entire bag of candy, or refuse to go trick or treating. An adult must know the personality of a child to understand how to adapt an explanation that will ease that child's fears.
"Use non-inflaming language," she advised. A mother who recently sought help for a daughter with chronic stomach cramps did not, for instance, realize how she amplified her daughter's acting out an ailment. The mother repeatedly cited every gory detail of cramping and throwing up when referring to the little girl's stomach tension.
Without intending to target children, news writers often use highly charged verbs to magnify the story and grab attention, which can scare a child. To repeatedly hear stories about how "America Strikes Back" hits some children emotionally, although most children nowadays are used to hype and may not be affected in obvious ways. Parents may want to be on the lookout for non-verbal cues, such as a child building tall "buildings" from blocks and challenging adults to knock them down.
Of course, influence of mass media is not limited to the explosive verbs of news broadcasts. Entertainment executives recently met with White House officials who are encouraging network and movie bosses to help the public get the war on terrorism in perspective, to communicate the American multi-cultural way of life, and bring to a personal level our understanding of the world since September 11.
The Daly guest speaker expects that soon children's books will begin to offer themes that allow parents, teachers and counselors to get kids talking about their fears related to current events.
"We need books about bad apples, for example, and how they spoil the bunch," she said. Books can be used to get youngsters talking, so adults can listen, and then explain, with the intention of offering assurance.
The Letter "A" in L.E.A.D. is for Assurance. When faced with world problems that impact our personal worlds, children generally are not interested in higher theological and political concepts. They usually want answers to more important personal questions, such as "Are you going be there to pick me up after soccer practice today?"
Children want to know their lives are safe. "Little reassurances are very helpful. Kids want to know we are going to have turkey on Thanksgiving again this year," said the psychologist.
The three "Ds" represented by the final letter in the L.E.A.D. acronym mean Distract, Direct and Demonstrate.
Distraction may be useful for smaller children. "When your toddler is upset, you can distract her with a few words, such as 'Hey, you want to roast marshmallows?"
This probably won't work for older kids. Parents who try to distract high schoolers by proposing a marshmallow roast could end up in a serious discussion about world problems while licking freshly toasted marshmallows from their sticky fingers.
For students in middle school and high school, the key word is Direct, which means to direct these students in ways that give them a feeling of empowerment through mastery of the problem. "Have them go read up on personal safety, or volunteer to mentor younger kids." Even being a reading buddy in school can help a youngster to feel more control in his world.
Volunteerism has become a renewed way for both adults and children to feel empowered. The child rearing expert said we have entered a new age of patriotism through volunteering. Our heroes are no longer mere sports figures, but have become citizens who truly serve others, such as firemen, teachers, postal workers, and our parents, who comfort us and offer stability.
The final "D" stands for Demonstrate. We must show our children by our words and actions that we feel safe, even when we harbor secret fears.
"If we build bunkers, we can't expect children not to be affected," she said.
Citing the examples of Israel and Northern Ireland, the psychologist pointed out that our reactions must be related to the reality in which we live. In societies in which bombs may be left in public places, children may reasonably be taught to run to an adult they trust if they spot an abandoned briefcase. It would be realistic to train Israeli children to holler and point to a briefcase or package left behind. Not here. Not yet, and hopefully not ever. Such bombs are not a fact in our society and there is no reason to act as though they are a problem here, unless it becomes a problem in fact.
She said parents help if they keep risks in perspective and avoid using inflammatory language.
"The likelihood of your child's school being a target is infinitesimal," the mental health professional said, "The level of risk is no greater now than before September 11."
She pointed out that although parents may need to talk with children about their fears, "Just before bedtime is not a good time to deal with big issues."
When all is said and done, the best formula for parents to use is tried and true. The mental health professional said, "Give a few extra hugs and kisses. It's really good for the kids and it's not so bad for us, too."