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Talk about it, counselors advise

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Students at Cypress Lake High School Center for the Arts in Fort Myers, Florida, watch coverage of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.  

By Helyn Trickey

(CNN) -- New York City schools worked feverishly Tuesday morning to evacuate students from the downtown area to safe locations in the north end of the city following an apparent air attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

"All children have been moved out of danger, and only their parents are being allowed to pick them up," New York City Board of Education representative Catie Marshall said in a phone interview.

That was exactly the right move to make, says psychologist and trauma specialist Dr. Patty White.

"The first thing we try to do is to stabilize the kids by taking them away from stimulus," she says.

How do you talk with your children. CNN's Kathy Slobogin talks with a trauma expert (September 11)

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White trains caregivers on the first line of defense -- those who typically arrive first on a disaster scene; policemen, firemen and paramedics among them -- to deal with children in a crisis.

"We try to calm them down. We do introductions ... and get them to talk about what is going on in their heads, White says in a phone interview from California. "It's very important that kids have the venue to talk immediately, but they should not be forced."

From Talk about what happened -- News story and discussion guide for parents and educators  

Reuniting kids with their families as soon as possible after a trauma is crucial, says Russell Sabella, associate professor of counseling at Florida Gulf Coast University.

"You need to help them be in a place where they can calm down," he says.

The toughest questions

Next, a counselor, parent or teacher has to address the flood of questions and unpleasant emotions students may have following a traumatic incident, says Sabella.

"Kids are not mini-adults, but they are pretty sophisticated," says Sabella. "They may feel fear or feelings of inadequacy. They may ask questions like, 'How could this have happened? We are the most powerful nation on Earth. How could we have prevented this?'"

There are no easy answers to those questions. Sabella uses two rules when he advises counselors how to handle the toughest questions: Be truthful and honest.

"Bad things happen, and as much as we try to prevent them, they may happen anyway," he says.

Sabella urges adults to remind children that the world is still relatively safe, and events like the attacks in New York and Washington are still rare events.

White cautions adults to limit wild speculation and rumors about an unfolding disaster if youngsters are in earshot.

"Tell them you don't have all the information right now," she says. Instead, adults should be open and honest with children, letting them know there are no quick fixes and that the only thing you can do is stick together and reassure each other, she says.

Most important, say both Sabella and White, tell kids it is OK to be angry and sad.

"Sometimes our reactions take us aback," says White. "We are all sad and we are all wondering if this is going to happen to us. The feeling of being out of control is one of the worst things that can happen to a human being, and we need to give ourselves permission to react."

White says schools should be particularly aware of children's needs to talk about this tragedy now and in the weeks and months to come. She advises teachers, parents and counselors to emphasize what we do have in our favor: a strong military, strong international allies.

And most important, each other.

"Keep them in the moment," advises White. "Tell the kids that this is not a movie ... that this is irrevocable but that life will go on. It won't be the same, but it will go on."

Children need 'reassurance' in face of tragedy
September 12, 2001
Trauma counselors devote careers to crises
March 13, 2001

Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists
National Organization for Victim Assistance

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