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Helping Children with Learning Disabilities and/or ADHD Cope with Tragedies

By: Kathleen Ross Kidder

It is hard to know what to say to children about the tragic events and crisis of September 11, 2001. This event has brought feelings of fear, sadness, and horror to Americans and to our children. It is impossible to shield children from such events. It is not easy to know what to say to children in times like these.

Children with LD and/or ADHD may feel especially vulnerable. Their disabilities can make them feel more vulnerable than other children. Many times they misread social cues and have difficulty following a sequence of events. They may link the very salient, or powerful scenes depicted, without understanding the complexities because they have been repeated so many times on the television news. They may miss the message that they are safe and that events such as the New York and Washington, D.C. terrorist attacks are not common events. Children without LD and/or ADHD, of course, may experience similar difficulties.

Most children learned of the events at school. For children with LD and/or ADHD school is often a setting that elicits even greater feelings of vulnerability. Worried or anxious children, especially boys, may act out their feelings of sadness and insecurity by bothering others, yelling, or even engaging in acts of aggression. Girls, on the other hand, often turn their feelings inwards and become sad, quiet and withdrawn. These reactions vary with age because children understand events differently at different ages.

LD OnLine has developed some suggestions of how to work with your children as you try to help them understand the events of the past week. We also have a list of other sources of information that can be helpful.

If your child seems to be experiencing pronounced fears and anxieties ask for help from the school psychologist. Most schools have programs to help children deal with such tragedies. Many of local hospitals and mental health centers also have programs to help parents and children cope.

If you, or your child, were directly affected by the terrorist's activities we recommend that you seek professional counseling to help your child move past these tragic events. The information below is to help parents whose children have not lost a loved one but who have seen the events and violence in the media.

What you can do to help

  • Listen to your children. Children need to feel free to talk with their parents about how they feel. Actively listen. A technique psychologists often recommend is called “mirroring.” If a child says he is afraid, he is trying to understand what is happening. She is also trying to judge how serious a situation is and to develop and understanding of his or her feelings as they relate to the event. If I child says, “I am scared,” a parent who actively listens will help the child identify the feeling and let the child know it is alright to discuss that feeling. If the parent “mirrors” back the child’s words, “You really feel scared,” the child knows it is OK to talk about the feeling and will begin to look at events from his or her perspective. If a parent says, “Don’t be afraid,” and then moves on in the conversation, the child is left with the feelings and no validation of those feelings. Be an active listener who is willing to take small steps in the conversation. Child: “I’m scared”. Parent: “You feel scared.” Child: “Yeah, the fire really worried me.” Parent: You feel worried because of the fire.” Children need to work through their feelings. Active listening helps them do this.
  • Reassure your children about their safety as you listen to their fears. This often means holding them, cuddling them, or offering physical closeness so that they know you are there to protect them. Children will need time to reconnect to their family bondings.
  • Answer their questions in an honest manner. In your answers, though, do not give more information than the child requests. Children do not understand most of the events that happened. Their concerns, simply because of their developmental stage, will be centered on how the events affect their lives.
  • Give your children other ways to express their feelings. Some children express feelings through art or music. Others by organizing their toys or even playing a game where they can get a sense of control. A drawing that says "I am really scared" can help a child who has difficulty talking about problems and will let you know how worried he or she is.
  • Limit the amount of television coverage children see of tragic events.
  • Monitor your emotions. Children learn by watching how those around them adjust. If your anxiety remains high, theirs will also be high.
  • Share your feelings in a calm manner. Children will sense them.
  • Try to let children know that the event that happened was not a “normal” event. Let them know that life will continue on pretty much in a normal way.
  • Give support to your child’s classroom teacher as well. Teachers who work with students with LD and/or ADHD and related emotional difficulties usually have extensive patience. In the weeks to come, however, classroom teachers will be working with many children who are trying to deal with the tragedy while at the same time dealing with this tragedy themselves and within their families. This is a time to thank them for their support of your child.
  • Let the child know if there is someone else they can talk to if you are not there or if they feel they need to just talk with another person. Children need to know it is OK. This might be a grandmother, their after-school sitter, or a neighbor.
  • Be patient. Children may need to revisit the discussion of the events of September 11 many times in the upcoming months. Keep talking about it as they indicate this need.
  • Take care of your emotional needs in this time of tragedy as well.
  • Seek professional help for your children if you see pronounced signs of depression, anxiety, and fear as the months move forward.
  • Finally, remember that children respond differently depending upon their age and their stage of cognitive development. Their level of understanding is important to your level of response.
Age guidelines of how to help children cope
Age What they know Understanding of events and concerns Things to do Things to avoid
0-2 Children may sense your feelings. They do not understand the events. Reassure them of your love during the daytime and at bedtime. Do not label the event for them. Avoid media exposure.
2-6 Children may have seen the event on television. Most will not understand the event and will relate to the pictures seen. They will sense your concern. Children at this age do not understand death. They do not understand the size of the damage or what it means. Reassure them of your love. Get cues from their teacher if their behavior seems to indicate excessive anxiety. Do not provide more detail about the tragedy to them.
7-11 Children now understand what has happened. At this age children have the cognitive ability to link two events and to understand the intensity of the damage. They are also beginning to understand the concept of death. Answer questions in terms of what the children have seen. They will now, in general, be able to answer “why’s and what if’s.” Their fears of death may be very intense and personal at this time. Reassure them of your presence, love and that the events that happened will not change that. Answer questions directly. Use “active listening and mirroring.” Provide other ways to express feelings such as drawings. Let them know that it is OK to discuss their feelings with a grandparent, neighbor, or teacher. Do not ask a lot of "why" questions or try to take the discussion into the future. Do not discount their feelings by saying, "Do not be afraid. It is silly to be afraid."
Adolescents Adolescents understand the enormity of the event. They will ask the “whys” and they will worry about the future. At this stage adolescents are beginning to look to the future and to ask all kinds of “why” questions. They also begin to look at issues of their future. They may disagree with what you say on this issue. They cannot always see all of the important sides of an issue. They are more keenly able to find ways to develop a stronger sense of control over the tragic events.This may be by fiercely trying to be perfect. It can be by discussing and thinking about death. It can be seen in arguments with parents. Actively listen. Share your feelings. Provide alternative ways to share feelings. Peers are important to teenagers. Religion is also important and allows teens to explore the world in a different way. Reassure them of your support. Seek help if they seem to become very withdrawn. This can be an especially difficult time for adolescents and young adults. They are at the point in life where they know they are moving to adulthood. Their fears may center on questions about whether the world will continue to exist for them. Don’t ignore their feelings. Don’t try to impose your values on your teenager’s discussions of the tragedy. Teens may disagree but it is important to recall that most are trying to control that which is creating anxiety. This can seem to be an argument with the parent.

When problems seem to intense, or too long lasting, we advise seeking professional help from a specialist who is trained to work with children.

Other excellent sources of help are offered below.

Kathleen Ross-Kidder, Ph.D. is the former Director of LD OnLine (www.LDOnLine.org), the interactive guide to learning disabilities for parents, teachers and other professionals, and the leading Web site in its field. LD OnLine is a service of WETA-TV-FM, the public broadcasting station in Washington, D.C. Dr. Ross-Kidder is also a faculty member of the Department of Psychology at The George Washington University, a former teacher in both private and public education and a licensed school psychologist who has worked extensively in public education and private practice helping children with learning disabilities and/or ADHD and their parents. She also served as a consultant to the GED Testing service of the American Council on Education where she helped develop their national policy for meeting the needs of students with LD and/or ADHD.

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