Helping children process the Boston Marathon bombings

Pictures taken at the scene flickr/hahatango

As a life-long Bostonian I’m having a difficult time processing the range of emotions I’m feeling in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy.

Like most people I’m angry, frightened and saddened, all at once.

 

But more than anything I’m confused. Why would someone do this?

And if we as adults are having a hard time coming to terms with yesterday’s events, what can we do to comfort our children?

“These bombings will evoke many emotions in all of us, but it might be particularly hard for children to process, so they will look to the adults in their lives for answers,” says Roslyn Murov, MD, Director of Outpatient Psychiatry Services at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Those answers will be different for each child, but the most important thing any parent can do in a time like this is reassure their children that as a mother or father you will do everything in your power to keep them safe.”

According to Murov and Heidi Ellis, PhD, assistant professor of psychology in Boston Children’s Department of Psychiatry and a member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a child having a particularly hard time dealing with tragic events like yesterday’s bombings could react in many ways. In the next few days, parents should be on the look out for any changes in behavior that could indicate a problem. The following are some of the more common responses children display when having a difficult time understanding tragic events, as well as coping strategies adults can use to help them feel better.

Confusion as to whether or not the danger is still happening: If young children are exposed to media coverage of the event, or hear about it through other sources like friends or other children, it is possible they will not be able to understand it happened in the past, making them fearful that they are in danger. To help parents can:

  • Let the child know that the danger has passed. Multiple reminders may be needed.
  • Find out what they know, and where they got the information. Correct any inaccuracies.
  • Limit or restrict all media covering the event.
Depending on the child's age, you may want to limit or restrict the child's access to TV coverage on the bombing.

Fear of being alone: After a tragic event children may be scared to be alone, making going to bed or even the bathroom alone a scary situation. To help parents can:

  • Be calm and assure the child that you, and other adults like teachers, family members and police are here to protect him.
  • Allow the child to be a little more dependent than you normally would. As the child feels less emotionally distressed, parents can return to usual routines.
  • If you need to leave your child for any reason, explain where you are going and give them exact time you will be coming home.

Behavior regression: When frightened some children may regress to younger behaviors like thumb sucking, bedwetting, baby talk and so on. How parents can help:

  • Parents should allow the behavior and not call attention to it. In time the child should again outgrow the behavior.

Questions or confusion about death:  Many children do not have a full understanding of death, or that it is irreversible. After an event where people are killed they may have questions about what that really means. To help parents can:

  • Give age appropriate, but accurate, definitions around what it means to be dead.
  • Take cues from the child. Do not give more information than she is asking for.

Feelings of blame or guilt:  When other children are victims of violence, some children feel guilt that they went unharmed. How parents can help:

  • Reassure the child that the event was not his or her fault.
  • Listen to their concerns and let them know that what they are feeling is valid. Never imply that such feelings are “silly” no matter how unfounded they may seem.

Retelling or acting out of the event: When an event dominates all media and conversation in a child’s world, it’s likely the story will find its way into his play, drawing or conversations. How parents can help:

  • Let the child act out, draw or continue to talk about the event if doing so doesn’t seem to scare or upset her. Let her know that doing so is a normal way to process their feelings.
  • Encourage positive problem solving in the play, drawing or talk.

Aggressive behavior: If a child is having a hard time processing emotion or harboring fear, he or she may act out with aggressive behaviors. How parents can help:

  • Talk to the child and ask if they are upset about what happened. By broaching the subject parents can help children better process their feelings.
  • Encourage outside, physical play to reduce nervous or anxious energy.

Just because a child isn’t displaying any changes in behavior doesn’t mean he or she hasn’t been touched by the tragedy. Here are things all parents should consider discussing with their child concerning the bombing.

open communication is important in processing tragedy

Be open. Denying or ignoring the situation may imply that the event is too horrible to talk about, which can scare children even more. In an age appropriate way, discuss what happened and make sure they have accurate information.

 

Encourage questions and give honest answers. Many children may want to know why someone did this and if it will happen again. Of course we don’t have exact answers for these questions, but talking them out with children can be helpful, for you and your child. Reassure them they are safe and give any information you have on the help and support the victims are receiving. A family donation to the Red Cross, or other relief funds, can empower the child to feel more in control and less helpless in the face of tragedy.

Limit media exposure. Depending on age, you may want to limit your child’s exposure to media surrounding the bombings. Even if they don’t seem to be watching directly, even young children can pick up and internalize background noise of TV and radios.

It may be a good idea to limit your own media exposure as well. The images and stories circulating in the news are distressing for all of us, if you become overly upset or frightened it can have the same effect on your child. If appropriate, watch some of the coverage together and use it as an opportunity to discuss what happened and correct any misconceptions they may have, and then turn off the TV and talk about other things.

Regardless of how you choose to discuss the bombings in your own home, please remember that children should be the ones deciding how little, or much, yesterday’s events are talked about.

“Everyone’s response to this violence will be different, so parents need to make sure they follow their child’s lead,” says Ellis. “Some children may feel the need to talk about it more, others less, so parents need to be aware of that and give them as much true information as they are looking for.”

If you are looking for additional resources on talking about the bombing in your own home, the flowing links may help.

For parents:

Tips on preventing children from being frightened by media

Family Education Sheet- Talking to Your Child about Scary Events

For medical providers:

Healthcare Toolbox

Trauma-Informed Pediatric Care