Marina Cantucuzino: What do you tell the children?

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The Independent Online

In our children's lifetime there has never been a catastrophe of this magnitude. Dunblane, Hillsborough and even Oklahoma City could be set aside as one-off tragedies from which lessons would be learnt. But as this has escalated from its grim source in the towers, the ripple of fear has left everyone shaky.

In our children's lifetime there has never been a catastrophe of this magnitude. Dunblane, Hillsborough and even Oklahoma City could be set aside as one-off tragedies from which lessons would be learnt. But as this has escalated from its grim source in the towers, the ripple of fear has left everyone shaky.

It wasn't until day four of the crisis that I talked about it with my nine-year-old daughter. I was foolishly hoping that the enormity of these appalling events would somehow escape her, until, visibly bracing herself, she asked me: "Is there going to be a...?" She couldn't say the word but made the gesture of firing a gun.

It was not the terrible television images which had so frightened her but newspaper headlines screaming WAR. I reassured her that there wouldn't be guns on the streets of suburban London but I wish President Bush had spared us that unequivocal word. How do we make sense for ourselves, let alone our children, of a war which is looking for someone to fight?

Among all the accounts, analysis and appeals flooding the internet over the past 12 days, one observation from an American woman of 68 who witnessed Pearl Harbor sheds light on how difficult children can find it to cope. "My trauma was less because of what I witnessed," she wrote, "and more because of hearing the indiscriminate conversations between the adults which struck terror into my heart since as an eight-year-old I had no context for them."

Sixty years on there is much more understanding about how to help children, yet parents and teachers are still agonising over what to tell the children about the events in New York and Washington and their aftermath. Should younger children have been spared live coverage? Patricia McCaffrey, an educational psychologist working for Kent Psychological Services, believes parents should follow their instinct but warns against over-protection. "A child may then see the images in newspapers or on other people's televisions, and if they think you've switched it off because it's too horrible for you to bear, that will make it worse. It's best to explain why you don't want to watch, and open up a discussion."

My 12-year-old daughter, who had just completed a project on the Crusades, saw chilling parallels. She had cried at the pitiful sight of people jumping to their death and voiced her fears of being at school in central London.

Teenagers who appear to be cynical or cavalier are almost certainly hiding how frightened they are. Younger children lack the cognitive ability to bring perspective to tragedy and should be spared detail. They don't understand the finality of death and take things literally. If an aeroplane can hit a building in New York, why not one in Newcastle?

But according to Peter Hodgkinson from the Centre for Crisis Psychology, "We tend to devalue children's ability to form opinions but they form quite sophisticated ideas of consequences. The most important thing is to give children space to talk." He advises that parents should foster an atmosphere of discussion so that children can try to make sense of what has happened, though he fears any civilian deaths in Afghanistan would be more difficult to explain.

Alan Tootill, the head of Broadgate Primary School in Leeds, has a system in place to deal with children in times of distress. From the day after the twin towers were attacked, class councils gave children a platform for their feelings, assemblies dealt with a range of subjects and there were special times for reflection.

"Our school is on the flight path for Leeds and Bradford airport," says Mr Tootill, "so we talked about security and reassured the children that events like these are extremely rare." Parents, he concludes, have dealt with the tragedy in a fairly minor manner, "some opting to let their children work it out in front of their TV screens". This isn't because parents aren't vigilant or caring but rather they have looked to schools to provide some sense of consolation and community.

"Children want to see their parents as strong," says Peter Hodgkinson, "but this doesn't mean resisting all emotion. They need to see their parents coping with fear and talking about what is frightening them."

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