Two days ago, my third grader came home from school and told me, “My friends are really scared because the police haven’t found the person who set off the bombs at the Boston Marathon.” Then she looked at me earnestly and continued, “If there was a bomb at our school, I wouldn’t stop to put on my jacket or my shoes; I would just go to the Kindergarten to get Annie Rose, and we would get out.”
Her shoes? Umm, okay.
“Katie,” I started, but then I stopped. What was I going to say? I couldn’t promise her that in no way would she ever be in this type of situation, although I do think it is extremely unlikely. This was a time to think carefully about my responses, because I wanted to validate her fearful emotions while offering her as much reassurance as possible.
I decided to let her be the guide in the conversation, listening to her talk, offering only as much information about the situation as necessary. I answered her questions without volunteering additional information.
“It is scary,” I agreed. “And even though there are some people who do bad things, I want you to remember that there are many many more people who do good things.” I thought of the Mister Rogers quote that has been circulating the Internet, and I showed it to her:
“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.” - Fred Rogers
As much as possible, I want to preserve my 9-year-old’s sense of security, because I know she needs to feel safe in order to function well at school, at home, and in all of her activities. As a result, these are the steps we have taken, and she seems to be responding well:
- Keep the television and radio off around kids; they do not need to hear endless stories about amputations and terrified crowds. After reading newspaper or magazine articles about the bombings, put them away out of sight.
- Do not leave Internet browsers open to news sites where kids can see graphic images and read frightening accounts.
- Ask your kids if they have any questions about what happened or if they have heard anybody talking about the bombings and want to clarify information. We have elected not to tell our Kindergartener and 2-year-old about the bombings, given the unlikelihood that their friends will be discussing it. However, we did make the proactive decision to tell our 9-year-old. I didn’t want her to first learn about it on the playground or from rumors, because I don’t want her to feel like I am hiding things from her, or else she is more likely to try to secretly seek out info online.
- Provide age-appropriate details but do not elaborate beyond what is necessary. Although I told Katie that there was a bombing, I did not specify that a child was one of those killed. Nor did I describe the types of injuries sustained.
- Answer questions honestly as they arise. Although I have chosen not to volunteer the info that a child was killed, if Katie specifically asks me if any children died, I will answer her honestly.
- Focus on the numbers to give the child a sense of perspective. Whereas there were only several people (that we know of) responsible for the harmful actions, there are thousands upon thousands of people working to make it better. I demonstrated this with chocolate chips. We put a few chocolate chips on the counter to represent the people who set the bombs. Then we dumped an entire bag of chocolate chips onto the counter to represent all the people rushing to help. This helps reassure my daughter that the majority of people are decent.
- Do not dismiss uncomfortable emotions. If your child says, “I’m scared,” first acknowledge her feelings before offering reassurance. Do not start off with, “Don’t be scared,” because this invalidates her feelings. Try saying, “I hear that you are scared. It is really scary, isn’t it? Let’s talk about some of the reasons why it is unlikely that this will happen to us, and let’s also talk about we would do in an emergency.” In the same way that having a fire escape plan makes the idea of a fire less scary, having an emergency plan makes crises seem less scary. Your plan may be as simple as, “Leave the place where the problem is happening. Find a helper and ask them to take you to a safe place. Memorize my cell phone number so someone can call me to come get you.”
- Stick to normal routines and rituals. They are comforting and predictable, helping kids feel a sense of control over a world that seems out of control.
- Ask kids to draw their feelings or express themselves through play. Invite them to be one of the thousands of helpers, perhaps by making a card to send to one of the victims. Taking action, even in the form of drawing a picture, reduces feelings of helplessness.
- Devote extra time to strengthening family connections. Take the time to slow down the pace and eat a family dinner together, play a game, read some stories, or watch a movie together. Help your child feel secure in her attachments, and the internal sense of security will assist in her ability to process the insecurities in the world around her.
Carrie Goldman is the author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.
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