Tragic events like the Boston Marathon bombings that took place yesterday, killing three and injuring at least 176 people, are hard for us adults to deal with, but how do we talk to our children about them?
Dr. Cynthia de las Fuentes, a licensed psychologist in Austin, TX, who has more than 20 years of experience offering psychotherapy to families experiencing anxiety and trauma, recommends the following tips:
1. Discussing specific acts of terrorism may be unnecessary, but if children hear the word being used and ask you what it means, then have a conversation with them. Perhaps you can draw similarities to bullying, but on a larger scale. What is most important in these types of conversations is to address the origins of terrorist acts as being in prejudice, hate, misunderstanding, differences, and revenge — and to follow that up with more appropriate beliefs about respect, tolerance, acceptance, compassion, and non-violent means of settling differences.
2. For children who live close to the affected communities, or who have personal family histories of war trauma (a mother or father who is currently serving in the armed forces or is a war veteran), another level of attention may be necessary. In these cases, concerned parents should certainly consider talking with their children about what happened, and about what is happening to address it. The level of the conversation should be appropriate to the age of the child — less detail with younger children, and more strategies for coping with older ones.
3. Being open and supportive of feelings and thoughts will encourage children to talk more. Furthermore, reminding them of the good in their lives, of their faith, of gratitude, and of the “helpers” in their communities will go a long way to provide comfort to both children and adults.
4. Keep an eye out for signs of distress. Children may have problems with sleep, concentration in school, changes in their appetite, or be irritable and weepy. Some of this is a normal stress reaction and it will likely abate in a few days or weeks. However, if the symptoms do not get better, or if they worsen, or if parents are at a loss for how to make it better, then seeking the help of a qualified psychotherapist (like a psychologist) will be the next step. That professional will be able to use their skills and techniques to help the child and family return to a better way of functioning.
5. Remember that children look to their parents to make them feel safe. They can only feel safe if the parents themselves are managing their own distress in a healthy way. Parents who take care of themselves can take care of their children by being a model on how to manage traumatic events. It’s important to keep regular schedules for activities, such as family meals and exercise, to help restore a sense of security and normalcy. Limit the amount of time spent watching the news, because constant exposure to vivid images and stories may heighten anxiety and fears.
For many families, this may be all that is needed.