Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

Making sure the kids are all right

Sue Ferguson October 1 2001
Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

Making sure the kids are all right

Sue Ferguson October 1 2001

Making sure the kids are all right

Sue Ferguson

“Some of those people who died, they’re uncles, aren’t they?" Phil Ritchie, psychologist for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board sees a certain poignancy in that question. The seven-year-old boy who asked it, he says, is putting a safe distance between his world and the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Thinking of the victims as parents hits too close to home for some children. “To this boy, they were real people, and kids had loving relationships with them,” Ritchie explains, “but they were not parents.” That quest for reassurance, emanating from children across the country as they absorbed TV images and news stories of the carnage south of the border, is a typical childhood response to trauma, says Toronto clinical psychologist Mavis Himes. And the symptoms are not always-or even usually—verbal: acting out, clingy behaviour and disturbed sleep patterns are some of the possible indicators of heightened anxiety. Those who have recently experienced a loss or separation, such as an illness or death in the family, are particularly vulnerable. “This kind of event,” says Himes, “can tip the scale in terms of how much a child can cope with.” Similarly, Himes anticipates a psychological impact on the children of Canada’s Muslim community. Salwa Said, a Grade 8 student at the Calgary Islamic School, says people serving her in stores “seemed pretty distant” and cast “eyes of blame” at her. While she tried to ignore their reactions and smile back, Said says she can’t shake her tearfulness and feels “scared to go out.”

In contrast, other kids may appear relatively unmoved. Parents, says Himes, shouldn’t worry if their child isn’t exhibiting distress. “There is a psychological timeline,” she says, pointing out that, as with adults, certain children are more complacent by nature or take longer to process what’s happening. While questions are likely to surface eventually, it is crucial, Himes insists, “to take your cues from your children.” Ritchie agrees: “The big thing is not to pass your worries on to the children but to let them bring you theirs.”

Besides talking, kids in many cases, wanted to do something about the horrors they’ve witnessed. From teddy bear drives and fund-raising events to caring for rerouted passengers and forming a human chain around the school, students, staff and parents across the country joined together in efforts to support those affected by the attacks. They were also helping themselves. Such actions, says Himes, “gives people a sense of mastery”-something in short supply since Sept. 11.