This week, we all held our collective breath, watching the news and scanning the Internet as reports flooded in about the Boston Marathon bombing. Such an emotional, stressful event naturally brings up past trauma, and so many of us were remembering 9/11 as we were bombarded with images that seemed eerily familier: smoke, injured and frightened people, a city street in broad daylight, and emergency personnel rushing in toward the unknown. When something this horrific happens, it’s difficult for people to cope with their feelings and the anxiety and fear that such an event might elicit. For children, these events are frightening in and of themselves, and then those feelings can be compounded by a sense of confusion and insecurity. Here are some tips for talking to your child(ren) after a tragic or traumatic event.
1. Keep it simple: Remember that while the Boston Marathon bombing may evoke memories of 9/11 or other tragedies for you, your child may be experiencing this type of event for the first time. Try to focus on the event at hand so that your conversation does not turn into a long discussion of multiple tragedies.
2. Find out what s/he knows: Sometimes, parents assume that because they haven’t told their child about something, s/he doesn’t know. Especially for school-age children, this is rarely the case. Even kids who aren’t in school may know about the Boston Marathon bombing because they’ve seen it on the news and online, or they’ve heard adults talking about it, even when the adults don’t think they’re paying attention. Ask your child, “What have you heard about what happened in Boston this week?” so you know if s/he’s received any information and, if so, whether that information is accurate. This will also give you a good start on seeing how your child is feeling about this event.
3. Use age-appropriate language and details: Young children are not developmentally mature enough to handle the details of a terrorist attack and massive trauma. Instead of inundating your child with details in an effort to be honest, try simplifying the event with statements that are both reassuring and age-appropriate. For example, for a younger child, you might say, “People were hurt, so the police are working hard to find out how this happened and who did it so that it doesn’t happen again.” Some children may best express their feelings through art, song, or play. Encourage your child to utilize things like dolls or art supplies to work through their thoughts and emotions.
4. Be reassuring: Remind your child that your home, school, and neighborhood are safe places. Reassure your child that although bad things happened this week, they are incredibly unusual and that most people go their whole lives never, ever being anywhere near a tragic or violent event. If your child is feeling particularly vulnerable or insecure, try identifying at least one adult, in each place your child frequents, to whom your child can go for reassurance, a hug, or a listening ear.
5. Choose your focus: A lot of people have been sharing this Mister Rogers quote (right) on Facebook and Pinterest, and it makes sense. In the face of evil, we need to find something redeeming so that we can make some shred of sense of what we’re seeing. Right now, that redemption looks like Boston’s citizens and first responders. Talk about all the brave people who helped those who were injured and protected those who needed assistance. Remind your children that there are far more good people than bad.
6. Turn it off: As much as possible, limit your children’s exposure to images of the Boston Marathon bombings. Remember that kids often have trouble understanding the difference between truth and fiction, live events and taped ones, news broadcasts and regular TV shows. If your child continually sees images from this tragedy on TV, s/he may wonder if the event is ongoing or happening again, which will increase feelings of anxiety and fear. S/he will likely see things that are not age-appropriate (because, of course, there IS no appropriate age for seeing some of these horrific things), which may be truly overwhelming, and s/he may fixate on the events in an unhealthy way. If you are in a public place and cannot avoid the exposure, focus on the first responders and good samaritans. Point out the people who are rushing to help; acknowledge the bad, and focus on the good.
7. Just be there: Be present with your child and offer lots of hugs and reassurance. Even when your child isn’t actively thinking or asking about this week’s bombings, make a concerted effort to give your kids extra hugs, attention, and physical affection so they are in as positive a frame of mind and emotional state as possible when those images do resurface. Help them maintain a stable, emotionally secure baseline so that they are as well equipped to handle this stressful topic as possible.
8. Get help: If your child is inconsolable, begins drawing disturbing images of these events, cannot focus on other things, is overly fearful, or otherwise demonstrates an extreme response, consider reaching out for help. Your child’s school guidance counselor may be able to offer assistance during the school day. Additionally, with an experienced trauma therapist, particularly someone who specializes in trauma therapy, children can work through their feelings and begin to move forward.
We all need a little extra help from time to time, and especially when we are collectively traumatized as we are this week, things can feel overwhelming. If you need help, reach out. As we always say: seek comfort. seek hope. seek healing. seek sanctuary.