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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Keeping Safe

Talking with children

By Barbara Meltz, Globe Staff, 11/4/2001


How genuine is the risk?
Taking practical steps
Staying safe on the job
Handling new kind of stress
Talking with children
Is it just the flu?
What to do when in doubt
Hospital readiness
How the body fights back
Are there other threats?
Not all terror threats equal

How to talk to your kids
5 signs you need help
What works, what doesn't
How anthrax is diagnosed
Inside a bacterial invasion
In case of emergency...
Identifying a mail threat
Safety resources

Compare cold & flu to other bioterror threats:
Cold & Flu
Hemorrhagic Fever

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More anthrax coverage

When suburban schools cancel field trips to Boston, when ordinary routines like opening the mail fall under suspicion, when a simple cough makes parents nervous, no child remains oblivious to the scary new realities of our post-Sept. 11 world.

Figuring out how to help children is complicated, not just because adults themselves are confused but because children's signals can be tricky to read. Most children appear to be living each day as if nothing is different. It is dangerous to take that at face value. Our children are not immune to the new fears and threats that engulf the nation. Their reactions may not be as dramatic or intense as they were in September, but they are there nonetheless:

Last week, preschool teacher Bev Bruce and a group of 4-year-olds at the Carriage House Nursery School in Cohasset were squeezing Play-Doh through garlic presses to make spaghetti-like strings. Suddenly, an animated discussion about poison meatballs erupted. It was initiated by a child who had just seen ''The Emperor's New Groove,'' which has a scene with pink poison, but the other children's heightened interest in poison made Bruce wonder: Would it have resonated so much if anthrax wasn't on their minds?

At the Hervey Elementary School in Medford, fifth-grade teacher Mike Allen said children told him one day they don't want their parents to open the mail. Another day they asked about Cipro and anthrax. ''The whole class had big wide eyes,'' he said, as he explained how antibiotics fight germs. ''No one stirred. There wasn't a rustle. This is clearly on their minds.''

At an elementary school in Cambridge, a teacher said a first-grader burst into tears when the boy sitting next to him coughed. ''I might get bad germs,'' he told her.

It's unlikely there's a child in the United States today who hasn't heard about anthrax or Cipro. ''Any age child has to be worried,'' says early childhood educator Diane Levin of Wheelock College. Children who have a personal connection to the scare, who knew someone who died Sept. 11, or who are anxious by nature are likely to have intense reactions.

Five- to 8-year-olds may be most susceptible to fears about biological terrorism, says child psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School and Judge Baker Children's Center. They are at a stage of development where there is heightened interest in how the body works and their thought process is still bogged down in ''magical'' thinking. A 6-year-old may insist on a Band-Aid for a tiny scrape, for instance, because she's worried her blood will drain out.

Play is typically how children under 10 address worries, a vehicle for gaining control and understanding. Allen has seen his fifth-graders form an army at recess to fight the Taliban, and child psychologist James Garbarino of Cornell University speculates that worries about anthrax may surface when children play house.

This kind of play is usually healthy, but not always. Red flags: If the themes spill over into other areas; if children refuse to take turns with roles ; or if the play is repetitive and never leads to resolution. In such cases, Garbarino suggests parents and teachers enter into the play with children under 5 to help redirect it. With school-age children, get them to talk about it. The goal is to help children work toward resolution: war play that leads to a trial for Osama bin Laden; fear about the mail that dissipates when the post man teaches mom to open it safely.

If a nine-year-old begs you not to open the mail, it's important to respect his fear but risky to give in to it. Garbarino's advice is to outline all the precautions you are taking (''I'm opening mail the way the post office advises'') and to listen to his concerns. Don't think he won't notice changes you're making. If you've decided to wear rubber gloves to open mail, tell him matter-of-factly, ''This is one thing I can do to keep us safe.'' Tell him also that you are trying to be brave, says Garbarino, that being brave doesn't mean not having any fear; it's about living your life despite the fear.

The alternatives - to not open mail or open it behind the child's back - can fuel fear and risks that he will learn you tricked him. Similarly, if the school has canceled a field trip to Boston, ''Plan a family outing there,'' says Garbarino. ''Otherwise you incubate a far greater fear: Will the city ever be safe enough? Will mail ever be safe enough? What about airplanes or tall buildings?'' Garbarino is author of ''Parents Under Siege, Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem in Your Child's Life.''

There are many reasons why children don't or can't voice fears, says child psychologist Patricia Owen, who specializes in children's fears at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. Preschoolers think parents are omnipotent: They assume we know what they think so they don't bother to tell us. School-age children may have been shamed for voicing a fear (''Don't be such a baby!'') or may need us to give literal permission to talk about it, reasoning that if we don't, ''It's so scary, even mom can't talk about it!'' A preteen or teen may insist he's fine out of machismo or denial, then turn around two hours later and bring the topic up. ''Being the one who decides when it gets talked about gives him a sense of control,'' says Poussaint.

Keep each conversation from overwhelming a child by starting it with an open-ended question, even if the child is only four. Ask, ''Have you heard about something called anthrax?'' Because talk of anthrax is so pervasive and so open to scary misinterpretation, don't stop there if he says no. ''I'd look for other vocabulary he might connect to,'' says Owen: '' `Have you heard about germs that float in the air?' `Have you heard of Cipro?' '' If a child continues to say no, tell him, ''If you hear about it and you have questions, it's OK to ask me.'' That you are there to answer questions helps him feel less like the world is out of control.

If he has heard of it, ask what he knows and validate any truth in what he says, saying, ''It's true; there are some bad germs around.'' Give concrete information: ''Anthrax is the name of the germ. Four people have died from it.'' And offer reassurance: ''Cipro is the name of the medicine that fights the anthrax germ. The people who died didn't get the medicine quickly enough.''

Most critical, says Levin, is what we say next. Tell him, ''In our family, we are doing everything we can to be safe.'' List specific precautions you are taking, including at your workplace. Also specifically say that the government and police are doing everything they can to keep us safe. Don't lie and don't promise anything you can't honor.

For children who seem stuck, consult a mental health professional. Before you do that, though, analyze your own behavior. ''Getting a grip on your own fear,'' says Owen, ''is the single best thing you can do for your child.''

This story ran on page 7 of the Boston Sunday Globe's Common-sense Guide to Keeping Safe on 11/4/2001.
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