Answering Questions

When another teacher told Patrick Welsh about the attack on the World Trade Center, he immediately turned on the TV in his classroom at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. Soon afterward Welsh and his 12th-grade students were startled by the sound of an explosion that seemed ominously close. "I was about to say, 'It's probably nothing'," Welsh recalls, "when a kid looked out the window and saw a dark cloud of smoke." Minutes later, the TV screen was filled with close-ups of flames at the Pentagon, two miles away. "We all had trouble absorbing it," Welsh says. "It looked like something out of a videogame."

Just as baby boomers will never forget the day President Kennedy was shot, this generation will always remember Sept. 11, 2001. In schools close to the violence, teachers comforted students whose mothers or fathers might be buried in rubble. In other classrooms, students worried about parents who were flying that day or relatives in New York. Even youngsters with no ties to the tragedy felt trauma. Glued to mesmerizing images on TV, they saw destruction replayed over and over. How kids reacted depended on their proximity to the tragedy--and the questions they are asking and the emotional issues the attack raises challenge parents everywhere. The best advice: pay close attention to children in the next few weeks.

Many parents' first impulse was to bring their kids home. Forty percent of the student body at the Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., was gone by 1 p.m., says the headmaster, the Rev. Luke Travers. One father who showed up around 11:30 looked particularly desperate. He worked in the World Trade Center, escaped after the first explosion, managed to get back to New Jersey before transportation shut down and came straight to school. He told Travers: "I had to see my son."

In the days that followed, parents tried to explain the attacks to their kids and still protect the youngest ones from the full horror. In Havertown, Pa., Colette LeFevre, a flutist, and her husband, David Orehowsky, a music teacher, decided not to turn on the news until they had thoroughly discussed the attacks with Natasha, 9, and Nikolas, 8--a move supported by psychologists who study children's reactions to trauma and stress. At first, the children seemed uninterested. But as the week went on, the questions began. Are we in a war? What country are we fighting? "I had to explain that we weren't fighting a country, that this was a gang of people from different countries," says LeFevre. On Thursday, Natasha wanted her mother to drive her to school--a five-minute walk away. "She's obviously absorbing how I've been feeling," says LeFevre. "I've been a basket case. I didn't sleep all Tuesday night, and she heard me telling somebody that."

Children who felt any direct connection to the events were especially anxious. At Newton South High School in Massachusetts, students felt vulnerable because the terrorists had taken off from nearby Logan Airport. "Where did they stay the night before?" wondered Emily Stover, 17. "Were they walking around downtown Boston where my sister lives? She could have been on the same street or eaten in the same restaurant."

In other schools, the tragedy brought back painful memories. Students at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., just east of San Diego, were devastated by the March 5 shootings on their campus in which two students were killed and 11 others wounded. As she walked home on Thursday, one sophomore girl, who did not want to be identified, said she was still "numb" from the March shooting. "And now this. It's just unbelievable... Before the shooting here, I didn't really think this kind of thing happened in our country. Now I know it does."

Many teachers tried to provide kids with positive ways to express what they were feeling. They encouraged kids to draw pictures or write poems. Classes also collected donations for relief workers, and wrote thank-you letters to police and firefighters. At the Hoboken Charter School in New Jersey, just across New York Harbor from the attack, 10th graders watched in horror from their classroom as the Twin Towers imploded. Many of the school's students had parents who worked in the buildings. On Thursday, when all but one of the parents had been found, students from second to 12th grade held a memorial service on the Hoboken waterfront, where there was a clear view of the still-smoldering remains. Teachers taped children's drawings to a long sheet of clear plastic. One third grader drew the towers and, next to them, a heart broken in two.

Expert Advice

Youngsters' reactions depend on their age, individual temperments and how close they were to the events. Here are some ways to answer their questions:

Be calm, but honest. Before the age of 8 or 9, children are not able to understand the larger context of the attack and look to the adults in their lives for guidance on how to behave. Don't react emotionally--by talking angrily about retaliation, for example--in a way that could frighten them. However, it is natural and helpful to say that you understand that they feel sad because you do, too.

Reassure them. Young children, especially those under 8, worry most about their personal safety. Tell them they are protected at home and at school. Try to maintain a normal schedule; routine is always comforting to children. With older children, explain that our government and people around the world are doing everything they can to make sure that the terrorists are punished.

Pay attention. Many children will want to know who the "bad guys" are, and why they did such a terrible thing. Depending on the age of the child, you can attempt to answer. However, experts say when young children ask these questions, they may actually be expressing concern about their own safety. Try to get them to talk about what's really bothering them.

Watch for long-term effects. Some children will have nightmares and trouble sleeping. Anger can also be a sign of anxiety. If these problems continue beyond a few weeks, seek professional help.

Teach tolerance. This is a time when many people feel a natural urge to seek revenge, but explain to your children that it is always wrong to blame an entire group for the evil actions of a few people. Show how people of all backgrounds are pulling together in the crisis. Tell them that with a spirit of cooperation and community, the nation will overcome this tragedy.