The explosions at the Boston Marathon have led many adults to wonder and worry about safety at events that are supposed to be fun and celebratory.
The question then becomes, if adults are having a hard time understanding this tragedy, how can parents talk to their children about what happened? Should parents talk with their children about it?
These are not easy decisions or conversations. While most of us would like to shield children from fear, children know and pick up more than we think.
I recommend that parents do talk with their children about what happened, keeping the following in mind:
* First and most importantly, take care of yourself: Before talking to your child, find ways to get help and comfort for yourself. Make sure you are talking to the child in order to help your child and not as a way to process and make sense of this tragedy for yourself, as adults often need to do.
* Start the conversation: Children may be thinking about the incident without bringing their thoughts and concerns to their parents. It is helpful if the parent begins the conversation.
* Find an appropriate time to talk: When talking to your child, choose a place where you can talk without being interrupted. Choose a time when the conversation is not rushed and the child feels s/he can be listened to and have questions answered.
* Find out what your child knows: Before telling the child about what happened, ask an open-ended question about whether they heard what happened in Boston or at a place where people were racing. See what they know.
* Listen: As children tell you what they know or ask questions, give them the space to talk without interruption.
* Keep it simple: Children do not need to know most of the details about the bombings and we do not want to scare them further with facts that are too much for them.
* Make the conversation developmentally appropriate: Young children need brief, simple information balanced with reassurances. Older children will be more vocal and may need more information about efforts to keep them and their community safe. Teenagers may want to discuss the causes of violence in society and may need to discuss what they and their peers can do to be safe.
* Be honest: While children do not need all of the facts, it is important to tell them the truth. Don’t pretend that the event has not occurred or that it is not serious. Children are smart and they may be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what is happening.
* Reassure children that they are safe: While we cannot and do not want to tell children that this will never happen to them, we want to reassure them that most communities and events are safe places.
* Give permission for many different feelings: Explain that all feelings are okay when something scary like this happens. Let children talk about their feelings and help put them into perspective. Younger children may not be able to express their feelings with words, but rather through nonverbal cues.
* Share your feelings: It is okay and important for children to know that the adults in their lives have similar feelings when bad things happen. It is important that you remain in control and monitor your own emotions and tone of voice. If you’re finding it difficult to manage your reactions, you may want to enlist another adult to help you.
* Maintain a “normal” routine: To the extent possible, stick to your family’s normal routine for eating, sleeping, homework, etc. By keeping these routines, it provides a solid foundation for recovery and helps children know they are safe.
* Limit media exposure: Such images can heighten children’s anxiety and fears. Allow breaks for yourself as well.
* Remind children that trustworthy and helpful people are in charge: As Mister Rogers once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster’, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers-so many caring people in the world.”
Remember, too, that organizations like Jewish Family Service are here to help. If your child exhibits new, troubling behaviors, don’t struggle with it on your own. Licensed clinical social workers who are experts in child development can help to address your child’s anxiety.