It’s hard to know how or if to address scary events kids see on the news. So we talked to Neena McConnico, director of the Child Witness to Violence Project at Boston Medical Center, who counselled children in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon tragedy, to find out how parents can help their children understand the situation in age-appropriate terms and support them in the days after the event.
Children don’t need to know every detail about the situation, but they will need answers to their questions. “Acknowledge that something scary has happened, but explain that the community is working hard to find the ‘bad guy,’” says McConnico. “Make sure they understand that the adults around them will keep them safe.” Older kids with the cognitive capacity to reason and think things through may require more of an explanation, but it’s still important to avoid over sharing. Too much information will just provoke anxiety.
“Parents should turn off the TV, if they can tolerate it,” McConnico advises. “Some parents may need to get frequent updates to feel at ease, but they should use their phones, tablets or computers to ensure their kids don’t see anything.” It’s also important to limit conversations about the event, in the house or on the phone; little ears hear more than you might think.
It may be tempting to avoid talking about the situation altogether, but it will come out in their peer group eventually—especially if kids have to stay home from school. “Lying ramps up the anxiety more,” says McConnico, because children are attuned to the change in routine and know that something is up. Also, if the news event ends in the death or injury of the subject, explain that the person was hurt or killed when the police tried to catch them. How the suspect was harmed doesn’t need to be explained.
Kids may be a little more clingy than usual, which McConnico assures is completely normal. Be ready with extra hugs and comforting words.
After the situation has ended, try to return to regular routine quickly, as the predictability will help with any uneasiness. If your child is having a particularly difficult time, explain that the incident was rare and won’t happen every day. “It’s important for parents and caregivers to recognize their own level of anxiety, too,” says McConnico. “Kids feed off of adult cues, so if your regular coping mechanisms for stress aren’t working, see your doctor or a local mental-health clinic.” The same goes for kids. If your child is struggling to move past the experience, speak to a medical professional for next steps.
Touch base with teachers when kids return to school so everyone is giving the same message of safety and security. Your child may have lockdown drills they haven’t experienced before, so reassure him or her that it’s just like a fire drill in an effort to normalize the practice.
Some kids may benefit from reaching out in a concrete way, like sending condolence cards or making a donation to a trust for families of the victims. “But this is the parent’s call,” says McConnico. “It can be calming and helpful, or it may drive anxiety. Families have to do what feels right to them.”
For more information, check out these resources:
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: nctsn.org
The Child Witness to Violence Project: childwitnesstoviolence.org
The Canadian Academy for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: cacap-acpea.org
The Hospital for Sick Children Psychiatry Dept: sickkids.ca/psychiatry
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