This week marks the 18th anniversary of the attacks on The World Trade Center. For many, we remember where we were, what we were doing, and how we felt on that day. Most were glued to their televisions and watching the horrific scenes of the planes crashing into the twin towers repeatedly for weeks on end. Many school-agers, adolescents, and adults knew and understood that this was simply a replay of what happened since the news and media typically play the graphic parts of a traumatic event, but most younger children do not understand this concept, and did not at the time. In the disaster world, we refer to them as the “hidden survivors”; they are quietly affected without many people realizing just how much they are impacted by the event.
We have heard many stories of how young children that were exposed to the media around September 11th (because their parents were watching the news to get the latest updates) thought that the airplanes continued to repeatedly crash into the buildings because they didn’t understand it was being replayed. As adults, we sometimes do not think about how these events may appear to a child, especially when we are doing something that we think of as innocent (i.e. watching the news). We don’t realize that they may be hearing or seeing things that may be confusing to them or that may cause additional fear or anxiety.
It’s very important that we be mindful of what we watch and say while children are around, so they won’t be exposed to things that are not appropriate for them. Turning the news off when they are present or waiting to watch it later when they are asleep can be helpful in lessening their exposure to events that may be confusing or traumatic. If they do hear about a potentially upsetting event, it’s important to allow and encourage open communication about what they know or think so you can then talk to them about what happened in an age-appropriate manner, provide comfort and reassurance, and clear up any misconceptions they may have. Talking to them about how they are safe and how there are people helping during the disaster may also help provide them with emotional safety.
So, the next time a disaster strikes, natural or man-made, try to remember the “hidden survivors”. We unfortunately cannot stop some of the horrible things that happen in this world and how often the media talks about it, but we can decrease the negative impact it may have on the children.