How To Talk With Children About Boston Marathon Bombs

Police clear the area at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon as medical workers help injured following the explosions. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Police clear the area at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon as medical workers help injured following the explosions. (Charles Krupa/AP)

It’s getting to the hateful point that it feels like a fill-in-the-blank: How to talk with children about 9/11. About Newtown. And now, about the Boston Marathon bombs. But still, it never hurts to be reminded of what’s normal and what helps most. Dr. Gene Beresin, a child psychiatrist and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Mental Health and Media, offers the following helpful guide:

By Gene Beresin, M.D.
Guest contributor

At the finish of the Boston Marathon, the city of Boston was shaken by the explosion of a number of bombs. Almost all of our children have seen horrifying images of death, destruction, and distraught family members. We in Boston and many around the nation are filled with shock, fear, anger, anxiety, and confusion. Helping our children come to terms with this event is an ongoing process.

The news coverage is likely to be extensive and our children will be hearing and seeing the events of the day now and repeatedly. In response to this, they will have ongoing concerns and need reassurance. It was not long ago that they were all shocked by the shooting in Newtown, Conn. At a time of chaos and many questions about the nature of the attack, we need to help them cope with the vast uncertainties in the moment. How can we help guide our children through this stressful time?

For Children Of All Ages

Children need to have answers to three fundamental questions:

- Am I safe?
- Are you, the people who take care of me, safe?
- How will these events affect my daily life?

It’s important to provide answers to these questions, even if your children don’t put them into words. You should expect to answer these questions several times over the next few days and perhaps longer. Keeping as normal a schedule as possible will help reassure your children as well.

Remember that you don’t have to have an immediate answer for everything. Some questions don’t have any good answers.

In the next day or two, children will be very upset at the images of mourning friends and family members. Often this will make them concerned about the safety of their own family and other loved ones. It’s important to reassure children that you’re doing everything you can to stay safe so that you can take care of them.

Share your feelings with your children. Let them know that it’s OK to be frightened or sad or angry — that’s part of being human.

While you should try to answer your children’s questions at a level they can understand, remember that you don’t have to have an immediate answer for everything. Some questions don’t have any good answers. Right now we do not know why this happened or who did it. No one has these answers.

They will certainly see you and others around you texting, calling, emailing to see if friends and other family members are safe. And they may have a chance to see or hear things on the news — on TV or on the computer.

Infants, Toddlers And Preschoolers

Very young children are more disturbed by their parents’ and caregivers’ distress than by the actual events. That’s why they’re comforted more by your actions than your words.

Expect young children to regress emotionally a bit. They may become clinging or whiny, have difficulty sleeping. The more patient and reassuring you are, the more quickly this will pass. Much of their reactions will be in response to seeing that you are upset.

Spend extra time hugging and cuddling with your child. This will reassure both of you. Your child may want to sleep in your bed. That’s OK, especially at times like this.

If you wish to watch or listen to news coverage of the aftermath of the attack, do so while your very young children are not in the room. They do not yet have the ability to put the frightening images they see into perspective.

School-Age Children

Encourage your school-age children to share their feelings and concerns with you. Reports of taking victims to the hospitals may frighten them, even though they may be afraid or embarrassed to admit it. Let them know that it’s all right for them to be upset, and that you’ll do everything you can to protect them from harm.

Remember that children often work through emotional issues with play instead of words. Don’t be surprised if your children use toys to replay the images of destruction that they’ve seen or imagined. This is healthy. It can also give you insights into their fears and misunderstandings.

If your children’s play seems “stuck” in one scenario — they repeat the same event over and over — offer some suggestions for change. Even something as simple as, “Maybe the rescue workers can use shovels to help the people escape” can allow children to come to terms with their fears.

If your children are watching or listening to news reports of the aftermath, be in the room so that you can answer questions and clarify things. Use some of the reports to ask their opinions and trigger discussions.

Let younger children know that even though they’ve seen TV images of explosions dozens of times over many days, they each happened only once and on one day. The Marathon was only run once and it is over.

Expect your children to ask the same questions several times. Be patient. Remember that by asking the questions, they’re telling you that they trust you.

Remind your children that there are many, many more good people in the world than there are bad people, and that the good people will try to take care of them and protect them.

Help your children get back to “business as usual.” Keeping a normal schedule will reassure them.

Teenagers

Many adolescents are scared. They will know others who went to the Marathon and some even planned to be at the finish line. They wonder what this means for the the safety of others, including parents who work, go to school and live in Boston. They’re also struggling with questions about justice, power, and control — issues that have been in the news since the Sandy Hook shooting, and even more in the recent debates about gun control.

Let your teenagers listen in as you discuss both events and feelings with other adults. If they join in, welcome their participation even if you disagree with what they’re saying. Simply talking will help them to put their concerns into perspective.

Be with them when they watch TV news reports of the aftermath. Comment on what you’re seeing and listen openly to their comments as well.

Sometimes it’s easier for teens to talk about disturbing things if they don’t have to look you in the face. That’s why some of the best discussions take place while you’re doing something else, such as playing a game, driving in the car, or doing household chores.

Share your feelings with them. This gives adolescents permission to do the same with you.

Most children will cope with the support and understanding of their parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and clergy. Some who may be vulnerable because of previous personal experiences may need special attention from a school counselor or family pediatrician.

Readers, any specific questions lingering in your minds? Please post questions below, or tweet Dr. Beresin at @GeneBeresinMD. And here is a follow-up post by Dr. Beresin’s colleague, Dr. Steven Schlozman: Psychiatrist And Dad: Trying To Make Sense Of One Attack After Another.

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  • Rich

    Hi Dr. Beresin,

    Thanks for the informative article.

    We have a five-year-old whom we have yet to discuss death with and whom we have shielded from this news altogether––particularly given that I run the race regularly.

    That said, much of the advice that I read suggests that parents ARE talking to their very young children about this (even in cases where they don’t necessarily have to.) One expert went so far as to suggest that age-appropriate discussion about such events played an important role in helping children to learn about their world.

    Are we being too overprotective? At this age, should we be discussing tragedies such as this one and/or broaching the topic of death? Or are we better served to simply wait until either our child begins raising questions about death or we are forced to discuss it following the loss of a loved one?

  • Erik Deede

    My wife has focused our kids on the positive aspects of human behavior in these situations: all the medical personnel who helped injured people, the bystanders who selflessly rushed to help (giving their shirts after running 26 miles), the law enforcement who are protecting us and keeping us safe, etc. Pretty quickly our kids could only talk about the good and stopped talking and thinking about the bad. I highly recommend it.

  • 2nd_revplution

    This is a bunch of Hogwash! Lets allow our kids to watch news? Violence? Blood everywhere! What idiot wrote this? Rediculas. Then after our 2 year old watches the bloody mess repeatedly, ask them how they feel? And you call this common health. More like more common bull…. How you came to post this article is beyond human recognition. I’m appaled.

    • adarc

      The article clearly states to keep small children away from news coverage.

      Older children DO need to know what is going on, they will hear at school and from family, and if they think you are keeping them in the dark about they will actually be more fearful than if you are just honest about it.

  • ZarafromBoston

    The bombing scared kids in Boston and everywhere
    Let’s do something against fear & violence
    Put on a happy face (button)
    Zara (11yrs), Boston

  • Tom

    Is it advisable to tell a preschool age child (living in MA) about what happened if they haven’t been exposed to it otherwise? Concerned they may hear something when they head back to school next week and not understand.

  • galleon

    I agree with several of the posters here. The only way children are seeing this imagery repeatedly (unless they were there at the finish line) is if we are letting them. And if we are letting them, it’s because we are putting our needs as adults first. Our parents and grandparents instinctively knew to turn off the tv or radio if something disturbing was on and discuss adult matters when young children weren’t around. We are so saturated in media that that doesn’t even occur to us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    you see kids when our leaders need to get the people to acquiesce to starting new wars or having their civil rights taken they do whats called a “false flag operation” can we all say “false flag”? good

    • dust truck

      yes, and I’m sure Sandy Hook was a false flag operation too. Too bad it failed miserably if that was its true purpose.

      • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

        seems like many americans have been calling for having their civil rights taken from them in the oft mentioned “wake of Newtown”

      • adarc

        Do you think there is only one truck full of FBI agents? Seriously?

  • Nicole L

    Unfortunately we were there and my daughter saw legs lying in the street – that’s not something I will ever be able to remove from her memory. She keeps hearing the loud explosions and seeing the horrific scenes. :-(

    • heidi r

      this must have been devastating for you and for your daughter. If I were there with my 2 boys and they saw these graphic images – I would have them talk with a professional counselor right away. all the best to you from a young family in NH.

    • Liz

      There are many excellent resources for psychological trauma in the Boston area – in other cities too. But if you and your daughter are in the Boston area, you’re in the right city to get support for this. Consider asking her pediatrician or your Dr. for trauma therapists near you, or ask your nearest health center/hospital, or scan your health insurance for trauma therapists. Boston is a national training hub for psychological trauma, so your family will have access to great care if you choose to go that direction.

  • http://www.facebook.com/professional.debra.mahadeo Debra Mahadeo

    I told my daughter the truth about Newton. Her school told them there was a mean animal in their school. I did not have the heart to tell her about Boston. I heard the special report start yesterday after returning from her school and turned it off immediately. I asked today what she knew of Boston and told her there was a mean animal there. This is why I do not let her watch any news. Only PBS children’s programming and I always have the right to say no.

    • dust truck

      wait…. how is 26 dead, most of them children at a place that is supposed to be safe somehow better than 3 dead in a public place? I found it easier to tell my daughter the truth about yesterday than the truth about Sandy Hook.

  • samuelpepys

    This advice doesn’t cover the case–shocking to me, but I know it’s human–of teenagers laughing and joking about it casually, in passing, and having no visible reactions of sorrow or fear, which is what I saw in the college library yesterday. What is that about? How do you help with that?

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      we hear about these things almost every day in other countries. does that give you visable sorrow or fear every day?

      • dust truck
        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          i no longer follow links because the last one i clicked on here gave me a virus. i do think that the media does play a role by giving so much attention to crimes such as this.

      • samuelpepys

        It often gives me visible sorrow yes, but how would it give me fear, bombs going off in Mosul, Pakistan, Syria? I’m not there. Fear is a reaction to something that endangers you, or someone very close to you. These students were only 10 miles from two of the bombs, and at that point they were also reporting bombs in Harvard Square and Newton and Dorchester. Their friends were running, were down at the finish line. I just thought the absense of the normal, pre-moral reaction of fear in an uncertain situation of violence, where one’s friends and roommates and relatives could be involved, was a strange one, unmentioned in the article, and wondered if anyone had any words of advice on that one.

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          i guess some people are more resilient. if you get scared the terrorists win. these children have grown up with the hysteria all their lives so it probably does not phase them.

          • samuelpepys

            I understand what you’re saying, but I’m not getting across that they were laughing and joking, at 5 pm, about the death and maiming that may well have included their friends, families, their friends’ families. To not be phased by the sudden violent death and maiming of people you know is disturbing. Or anyway I don’t want to die ungrieved, or hear students giggle over the loss of my legs. An inability to feel for others, or to worry about those you love who are endangered, surely that’s another way in which “the terrorists win”?

          • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

            i dont know. if everyone reacted like that then the “terrorists” (or whoever) would not have any power. their only power comes from fear and if we don’t have it then they lose their power.

          • M

            I agree; the laughing is disturbing. I teach high school, and I see it, too. I see it differently from you, though. I get how it looks monstrous, but humor is actually a common psychological reaction to trauma. I’ve seen adults on rescue squads do it, too, after the most awful calls. For teenagers and young adults, in particular, it’s a way of distancing themselves from something horrible while also bonding with friends to feel safer. Obviously we’d wish they’d find better ways to do those two things. Still, recognizing that, however unfortunate, it’s a way of processing difficult emotions, helps me. Every person deals with grief and fear in a different, unique way; it helps if others try not to condemn those reactions even though they make no sense in their own eyes.

          • samuelpepys

            Thanks, and I totally agree it’s not useful to condemn the reaction. But it worries me: it isn’t even hysterical/nervous laughter, it’s just casual jokey reference, and I see that sort of thing often enough to worry that some kind of thoughtfully imagined intervention might become necessary. To constantly react to everything that happens as if it didn’t matter to you can turn into things really not mattering to you, if you catch my drift. The article spoke as though young people only reacted with pain and grief, and I think we should at least think about the many who don’t.

  • Paul Crawford

    Excellent advice from Gene – even here in UK context we are limiting our children’s access to the relentless News 24 about this terrible event. Thinking of all Bostonians affected by this shameful act.

    • http://twitter.com/GeneBeresinMD Gene BeresinMD

      Thanks for the kind words, Paul! It is so reassuring to know that you and others around the world have us in your hearts and minds.

  • grammiepatty

    Thank you for this. Let’s all protect and keep our children both physically and emotionally safe every day!

  • Halleus

    Why are children seeing images of death and destruction repeatedly? Turn off the TV, folks. While the horrific nature of this event shouldn’t be downplayed, the way the the media sensationalizes and magnifies isolated events unnecessarily creates anxiety and fear and distorts reality. Talk to your children, but don’t make the problem worse by letting them see the same grisly images over and over again.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1240094295 Amy Hamilton Russell

      exactly… events like this are exactly why we don’t even own a tv. my children don’t live in the dark, but i chose what they hear, and how they hear it.

  • Rebecca Balcarcel

    Thank you! I have a teen son with special needs. His sensitivity makes this event more disturbing than usual. I am combining the advice you give for older and younger kids. It’s working well. :-)

  • Framinghamlady

    Thank you! I have a 9 and 6 year old and they are old enough to understand. It’s very difficult as its hard for even us as adults to comprehend the tragedy.

  • Shan Crockett, MD

    Thank you Dr. B.

    Shan Crockett, MD, retired psychiatrist in California

  • Elizabeth Price

    Wonderful advice…thank you!