"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 this world.” - Mr Rogers

By now, many children across the United States and the world know that two bombs went off yesterday at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring 140 others, some of them quite seriously. How can we answer our children's questions, when we don't know why this happened?  How can we reassure them that we'll keep them safe, when we suddenly aren't sure that we can?  When a tragedy like this shakes our faith in our own sense of safety in the world, it's tough to talk with our kids about it. 

But it's our responsibility as adults to communicate to our children that we can and will keep them safe.  So before you talk with your child about this tragedy, reassure yourself. Your child is no less safe than he or she was last week.  The chances of your family being touched directly by such a tragedy are much, much, much less than the chances of a car accident, and you get into a car every day.

If you have a hard time believing this, it's a red flag that you've exposed yourself too intimately to the news. Every time you see more news about this tragedy, you're sending yourself back into fight or flight mode.  But, in fact, unless you were at the Marathon, or someone dear to you was injured, this is not an emergency for your family. It's our job as parents to manage our own emotions so they don't adversely affect our children, so it's important for us to move ourselves out of flight or flight.

Then, start from the premise that your goal is to help your child integrate the news and feel safe. Use this as an opportunity to reassure and give age-appropriate information so he has a context for whatever he hears from his friends. Ten pointers:

1. Don't leave your TV on. If you turn off the news, you'll be better able to stay centered, and better able to help your child.  If there are kids under the age of thirteen at your house, your TV should stay off whenever there's a public tragedy, or you're repeatedly traumatizing your kids. Knowing there's been a bombing is one thing. Hearing over and over about the blood and body parts and screams is quite another. Children can't handle those horrific images replaying in their minds.

2. Remember that your child will pick up on your emotions. If you're upset by what you've just read or heard, calm yourself before interacting with your child, and don't try to talk with your children about the events at that moment. Find a way to process your emotions first.  How? 

  • Talk (privately) to another adult. 
  • Breathe deeply. Feel those emotions. Cry if you need to.
  • Work out. If you don't have time, do some stretching and shake tension out of your hands.
  • Tap your acupuncture points to relieve emotional pressure and calm yourself (this is called EFT, there are instructions available here)

It's fine to tear up when you're talking with your child. But getting hysterical communicates to your child that you can't handle the situation, which decreases her sense of safety.

3. Be age-appropriate. Babies and Toddlers will not need to know about a disaster at all.  There is no need to raise the issue with your preschooler unless they have been exposed to it. And if you live far from Boston, even older children may never hear about this incident.

4. Ask your child what she knows.  Your child may well hear about the bombing from other children, and may well ask you questions. If she brings it up, start by finding out what she's heard. "What did you hear about that?"  Listen to the answers before jumping in to explain.  Repeat to be sure you've understood: "So Gabe said that bad guys blew up the Boston Marathon?"

Ask your child what she thinks about the information. Most likely she will parrot what she's heard, but she may well give you some insight into what she needs you to address, for instance if she tells you that the bomb was from terrorists (which we don't know yet) or that people lost their legs.

5. Explain simply, in terms your child can understand. Keep your explanation very simple: "Yes, there were two bombs, and several people were killed. It is very sad."

6. Answer questions. Your child may have questions, for instance about whether it's safe for Daddy to go running tomorrow morning. The answer, of course, is yes: "It is very rare for something like this to happen. The police officers are very good at keeping us safe."  Even if you live in Boston, you can say "We are safe now. The police and firefighters have looked all over the city very carefully to make sure there are no more bombs. We are all safe."

Your child may have heard gory details, like "people got their legs blown off."  Reassure him that everyone helped each other and people were rushed to the hospital and taken care of. If he seems preoccupied with a devastating image like this, explain that while this is tragic, people do go on to have rich lives even when confined to a wheelchair.

Tailor your explanation to your child's developmental understanding. With all ages, let your child talk as much as he or she will.  Answer questions truthfully, but with as limited information as possible. There is no reason to give your child details he isn't asking you for.  As much as possible keep your own upset from coloring your presentation of the facts. 

7. Listen and allow feelings. Talking to your child about a tragedy like this does not cause her to get upset; those feelings are there whether or not they're verbalized. If your child senses that she isn't allowed to cry or show you that she's frightened or upset, then she'll push those feelings down inside, where they'll cause nightmares or anxiety. If, instead, you accept and reflect your child's feelings, those feelings will tumble out for a day or so but then will dissipate. Often children show their fears by becoming aggressive. If you can stay compassionate when she gets aggressive ("Sweetie, no hitting...You must be very upset to hit like that"), she'll show you the tears and fears behind her anger. The most helpful thing you can do is listen to your child's fears, hug her, and reassure her that you will always keep her safe.

8. Stress that this is a rare occurrence. Be aware that your child will need your reassurance that although we are all connected, and we feel for the people who were touched by this tragedy, she is safe.  Stress that incidents like this are very rare. Add that it's the job of grown-ups to keep kids safe, and that you and the other adults in your child's life will always work very hard to keep your child safe.

9. Be prepared to answer more existential questions. As with all tragedies, children of all ages may respond with spiritual questions about WHY something like this happens.  How could this be allowed, in a "good" universe?  Every parent will have a different response depending on her own life view, but an affirmation of hope and compassion is always in order:  "We don't know why, Sweetie. I agree, it's tragic, and it isn't  fair.  Let's use this to remind us that every day is precious and every person is to be treasured, and let's think about what we can do to help."

Finally, offer some hope: "There were lots of wonderful people helping each other....the good thing about people is that whenever there's a tragedy, you will always find people helping each other."  

10. Respect your child's individual reactions.  Every child processes in her own way. Some children will become very sad and cry, and that is to be honored.  Some will listen, change the subject, and then bring it up to ask you more questions at bedtime. Others will shrug it off, which doesn't mean they aren't compassionate but that they can only handle so much of the information at a time. And some kids who have been protected from the media storm won't really see any connection to their own lives and won't seem upset at all, which is completely appropriate.

If your child seems very interested and continues to raise the issue, help him process his emotions.  For instance:

  • Encourage him to draw pictures of what happened
  • Ask him to write or dictate a story about what happened

Some children will want to tell you about the upsetting event over and over, which helps them work out their emotions.

11. Empower your child.  Research shows that feeling unable to do something to help make things better makes people of all ages feel hopeless, cynical, and less compassionate. Discuss with your child what your family can do to help, such as:

  • Send homemade condolence cards or other messages of love and support to the families.
  • Give blood.
  • Support your local hospital, for instance by taking stuffed animals to the pediatrics ward.
  • Remember the families in your family grace and prayers.

Plan to spend extra time at bedtime helping your child fall asleep feeling safe and secure. And honor the families who are mourning today by remembering to tell your loved ones how much they mean to you.  It's a good habit to get into.

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