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9/11 a Life-Defining Day for the Young

By Jenifer Goodwin
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sept. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Mallory Ham had just arrived at her first-grade class when the hijacked planes with their terrified passengers ripped into the World Trade Center. Though her recollections of that day are incomplete, they're burned into her memory just the same.

She recalls teachers crying, being sent home, seeing her mother glued to the TV, watching the Twin Towers collapse.

"I didn't really understand what it was -- I only remember being scared," said Ham, now a 16-year-old junior at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Conn., a suburb of New York City.

Part of the Millennial Generation, and dubbed by some the 9/11 Generation, Ham and other young Americans under 18 years old have carried the weight of that day for much of their lives.

And with the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaching, American children -- including those not yet born a decade ago -- will have to come to grips with one of the most terrifying events in recent American history, as media reports replay the assaults on New York City and Washington, D.C.

Psychologists say there's nothing to be gained by allowing children of any age to watch disturbing footage of buildings bursting into flames or people plummeting to their deaths. And parents, beware. It's not just TV news that you need to be concerned with: Ground Zero videos are easy to find on YouTube.

"It's very clear to me that the repeated exposure to images of 9/11 serves no purpose for adults or children, and I would discourage parents from allowing their children to be exposed to graphic images," said Roxane Cohen Silver, a University of California, Irvine professor of psychology and social behavior who has done extensive research on the psychological impact of 9/11 on children.

It's a parent's job to keep tabs on what their children -- especially younger ones -- are being told about the attacks, to help them understand them and to deal with fears and questions that may result, said psychologist Robin Gurwitch, coordinator of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

To open the conversation, parents might start by asking their kids if they want to talk about the events of 9/11, and then letting them express their emotions and thoughts, Gurwitch suggested.

Parents may be surprised by what they hear.

A Nickelodeon special -- "What Happened? The Story of September 11, 2001" hosted by newswoman Linda Ellerbee -- interviewed kids who thought that the terrorists were from Iraq or Japan, who thought 500 planes disappeared, or who thought the attacks never really happened.

"They may have some misperceptions. They may think, 'All people in the Middle East hate America.' It's important for parents to explain that's not accurate. We want to make sure that we gently correct and supply correct information," Gurwitch said.

She remembers her own daughter asking her 10 years ago about a group of children who were rumored to have been kidnapped and held by terrorists in Washington, D.C.

When it's your turn to talk, you might find yourself stumped for words. War and terrorism are difficult subjects to broach with children, because even adults can be at a loss to explain why something so terrible could happen.

Choose your words carefully, to keep explanations simple and brief. And never underestimate the power of a hug and some reassurance from Mom or Dad, experts advised.

And, of course, what you'd discuss with a teen will be different than how you'd approach the topic with a younger child.

Also, keep in mind that children watch their parents closely. Their ability to recover from traumatic situations is often dependent on how well their parents cope, experts said.

"When we as adults remember this anniversary and commemorate it and watch the stories and the images, all of those feelings we had on that day will come flooding back," Gurwitch said. "The issue then becomes, 'How do we help our children as we're trying to handle our own emotions?' It's fine for children to see that you are distressed and to cry, but they also need to see that you can wipe away your tears and go on with your day, talk about it and talk about something constructive."

After the attacks, many people felt compelled to reach out to distant friends and family, and to volunteer for charitable organizations, Gurwitch said.

The 10th anniversary may be an opportunity for that as well, she added. Remind children of the heroism of the first responders and volunteers who went to Ground Zero to help, or of the importance of stamping out hate, intolerance and violence.

"This is a window for you to communicate your ideas about tolerance, respect for differences, and to make a difference in your community," Gurwitch said.

Immediately after the attacks, research done on children in New York who did not lose a family member or were not otherwise directly affected found a modest uptick in symptoms of anxiety. For the vast majority of U.S. children, studies found no lingering mental health issues, Cohen Silver said.

And yet, reports of college students celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden raises the question of whether the young were altered by the attacks in ways psychologists don't fully understand.

Despite their resilience, no one -- children included -- have forgotten, Mallory Ham said.

"It's stayed with everyone. It's definitely something no one is going to forget. It's a day to be remembered for so many years to come," Ham said.

Coming Friday: Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll measures 9/11's toll 10 years later.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on talking to children about disasters.

To read HealthDay's story on the lasting health problems of 9/11 first responders, click here.

To read HealthDay's story on the psychological toll of 9/11, click here.

SOURCES: Mallory Ham, high school student, Norwalk, Conn.; Roxane Cohen Silver, Ph.D., professor, psychology and social behavior, University of California, Irvine; Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., psychologist, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

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