It's getting to the hateful point that it feels like a fill-in-the-blank: How to talk with children about 9/11. About Newtown. And now, about the Boston Marathon bombs. But still, it never hurts to be reminded of what's normal and what helps most. Dr. Gene Beresin, a child psychiatrist and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Mental Health and Media, offers the following helpful guide:
By Gene Beresin, M.D.
At the finish of the Boston Marathon, the city of Boston was shaken by the explosion of a number of bombs. Almost all of our children have seen horrifying images of death, destruction, and distraught family members. We in Boston and many around the nation are filled with shock, fear, anger, anxiety, and confusion. Helping our children come to terms with this event is an ongoing process.
The news coverage is likely to be extensive and our children will be hearing and seeing the events of the day now and repeatedly. In response to this, they will have ongoing concerns and need reassurance. It was not long ago that they were all shocked by the shooting in Newtown, Conn. At a time of chaos and many questions about the nature of the attack, we need to help them cope with the vast uncertainties in the moment. How can we help guide our children through this stressful time?
For Children Of All Ages
Children need to have answers to three fundamental questions:
- Am I safe?
- Are you, the people who take care of me, safe?
- How will these events affect my daily life?
It’s important to provide answers to these questions, even if your children don’t put them into words. You should expect to answer these questions several times over the next few days and perhaps longer. Keeping as normal a schedule as possible will help reassure your children as well.
Remember that you don’t have to have an immediate answer for everything. Some questions don’t have any good answers.
In the next day or two, children will be very upset at the images of mourning friends and family members. Often this will make them concerned about the safety of their own family and other loved ones. It’s important to reassure children that you’re doing everything you can to stay safe so that you can take care of them.
Share your feelings with your children. Let them know that it’s OK to be frightened or sad or angry — that’s part of being human.
While you should try to answer your children’s questions at a level they can understand, remember that you don’t have to have an immediate answer for everything.
Some questions don’t have any good answers. Right now we do not know why this happened or who did it. No one has these answers.
They will certainly see you and others around you texting, calling, emailing to see if friends and other family members are safe. And they may have a chance to see or hear things on the news — on TV or on the computer.
Infants, Toddlers And Preschoolers
Very young children are more disturbed by their parents’ and caregivers’ distress than by the actual events. That’s why they’re comforted more by your actions than your words.
Expect young children to regress emotionally a bit. They may become clinging or whiny, have difficulty sleeping. The more patient and reassuring you are, the more quickly this will pass. Much of their reactions will be in response to seeing that you are upset.
Spend extra time hugging and cuddling with your child. This will reassure both of you. Your child may want to sleep in your bed. That’s OK, especially at times like this.
If you wish to watch or listen to news coverage of the aftermath of the attack, do so while your very young children are not in the room. They do not yet have the ability to put the frightening images they see into perspective.
Encourage your school-age children to share their feelings and concerns with you. Reports of taking victims to the hospitals may frighten them, even though they may be afraid or embarrassed to admit it. Let them know that it’s all right for them to be upset, and that you’ll do everything you can to protect them from harm.
Remember that children often work through emotional issues with play instead of words. Don’t be surprised if your children use toys to replay the images of destruction that they’ve seen or imagined. This is healthy. It can also give you insights into their fears and misunderstandings.
If your children’s play seems “stuck” in one scenario — they repeat the same event over and over — offer some suggestions for change. Even something as simple as, “Maybe the rescue workers can use shovels to help the people escape” can allow children to come to terms with their fears.
If your children are watching or listening to news reports of the aftermath, be in the room so that you can answer questions and clarify things. Use some of the reports to ask their opinions and trigger discussions.
Let younger children know that even though they’ve seen TV images of explosions dozens of times over many days, they each happened only once and on one day. The Marathon was only run once and it is over.
Expect your children to ask the same questions several times. Be patient. Remember that by asking the questions, they’re telling you that they trust you.
Remind your children that there are many, many more good people in the world than there are bad people, and that the good people will try to take care of them and protect them.
Help your children get back to “business as usual.” Keeping a normal schedule will reassure them.
Many adolescents are scared. They will know others who went to the Marathon and some even planned to be at the finish line. They wonder what this means for the the safety of others, including parents who work, go to school and live in Boston. They’re also struggling with questions about justice, power, and control — issues that have been in the news since the Sandy Hook shooting, and even more in the recent debates about gun control.
Let your teenagers listen in as you discuss both events and feelings with other adults. If they join in, welcome their participation even if you disagree with what they’re saying. Simply talking will help them to put their concerns into perspective.
Be with them when they watch TV news reports of the aftermath. Comment on what you’re seeing and listen openly to their comments as well.
Sometimes it’s easier for teens to talk about disturbing things if they don’t have to look you in the face. That’s why some of the best discussions take place while you’re doing something else, such as playing a game, driving in the car, or doing household chores.
Share your feelings with them. This gives adolescents permission to do the same with you.
Most children will cope with the support and understanding of their parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and clergy. Some who may be vulnerable because of previous personal experiences may need special attention from a school counselor or family pediatrician.
Readers, any specific questions lingering in your minds? Please post questions below, or tweet Dr. Beresin at @GeneBeresinMD. And here is a follow-up post by Dr. Beresin's colleague, Dr. Steven Schlozman: Psychiatrist And Dad: Trying To Make Sense Of One Attack After Another.
This program aired on April 15, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.