Helping a Child Manage Violent Events

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As promised, I have given more thought to the question of what to tell children about the recent tragic events in Boston. I have talked to teachers and other clinicians and listened to children and read information on the Internet and in published material. One of the good things I read was the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry guidelines on talking to children about terrorism and war. http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/talking_to_children_about_terrorism_and_war. Another is an excellent link provided by Dr. Heidi Ellis from Boston Children’s Hospital –
http://www.nctsn.org/content/pfa-mobile

In general, sensible guidelines for helping children through these troubled times include talking to children about the events, communicating comfort with emotions about the events (both child’s emotions and parents’ emotions), and emphasizing safety.

First, the talking: Talking can be very helpful, but only in the child’s own “language” and time frame. Too much talking can be at best confusing to children and at worst can be alarming. It is of course essential to speak in words the child can understand. Discussing frightening events is best done at the initiation of the child, usually in response to his questions. The rule of thumb I usually use is to answer the child’s question briefly and without elaboration, then stop. If the child wants to know more, she will ask. Moving back and forth in this turn taking rhythm gives the child the chance to feel adaptively in control of the information gathering, to find the answers he or she needs and to avoid unnecessarily alarming or confusing information. A 9-year old boy, hunched over a video game told me in response to my simple question about his experience of the attack, “When bad things happen, I just don’t pay attention and wait for them to go away.” When I did not challenge him, he later told me about how some kids in his class were scared and talked a lot about the attack and its aftermath.

It is also important to remember that you do not have to answer all your child’s questions. Repetitive questions can often indicate the child’s wish for reassurance about safety more than his desire for specific answers. Instead of responding concretely to a question about the type of weapon used, for example, the parent may instead say something like, “What I do know is that the policemen are working hard to find out the information they need to protect us.” (Now some parents will insist that their child will “not let them get away with” an indirect answer like that. What I would say about this is that the child is trying to find reassurance in what seems like an out of control world through controlling the parent with his questioning, and in the long run a calm parent who declines to answer the questions he thinks inappropriate will make the child feel safer.)

Children also give other cues besides questions to communicate their concerns. For example, a young child may tell a parent that he had a scary dream, or an older child may say that she feels like staying home from school that day. In these cases, the parent may choose to ask about the dream or the child’s wish to stay home from school without bringing up the event specifically. Or, the parent may say something about the dream or the wish to stay home reminding them of the scary event. “Your scary dream reminded me of the scary things that happened in Boston yesterday,” or “Your not wanting to go to school reminds me of how I don’t want to go to work today after all the frightening things that have been going on!” In both cases, the parent isn’t pressuring the child to “take on” the frightening thoughts but joining the child in her concerns. It is important to hang around, to be available to talk. Tell the truth because child will know if you are being dishonest. Be prepared to answer questions multiple times in different ways, since children put together information in bits and pieces depending on the context and on their mood and state of concentration. This is different from the perseverative questioning I mentioned before.

Second, communicating comfort about emotions: All children – young and older –respond not only to the frightening event but also to the emotions of the people around them. Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words, so that the image of a parent’s anguished face will tell a child more than her reassuring words. It is important for parents to take care of their own emotions first in order to prepare themselves to be available to their child, just as the flight crew tells you to put the oxygen mask on your own face first and then on the child’s, in case of an emergency on an airplane. When your own feelings are under control, acknowledge them – fear, anger, sadness.

Children may tend to revert to earlier behaviors in response to frightening events, just as they do after other stresses. For example, when I went into a classroom yesterday morning, one 3-year old boy that I know well greeted me with baby talk. Of course, his affectation may not have been directly related to the crisis. Still, given the context of current events, it occurred to me that his baby talk might have been a response to fears about those events, and that awareness alerted me to the state of his mind on that day. In another classroom, two 5-year old boys at the lunch leaned in towards me when a third boy brought up the subject of the bombings. All children need and deserve extra tolerance and comfort in times of crisis.

Children will respond differently to frightening events, depending on their unique circumstances and personalities. Kids whose parents are separating, children who have had a recent move or other transition, or children who have lost a relative or friend, would be expected to react more strongly to danger in their environment.

Finally, emphasizing safety. Parents can stress safety by containing the stimulation of television, radio, and adult conversations. Remember that when children are anxious they listen more carefully to communication that is intended to be for adults alone. Limit the amount of television in the home at these times, and if you turn on the t.v., watch it with your children so that you can help them make sense of what is being broadcast.

They can support a feeling of security by maintaining comforting routines at home and in school. After Katrina, one of the first acts taken by Joy and Howard Osofsky in their rescue efforts was to create a school for the displaced children (Joy Osofsky, Personal Communication, 2010).

Parents can also help their child feel secure by scaffolding the child’s own efforts to create a feeling of safety. Some children will want to play firefighters or choose rescue vehicles instead of the usual racing cars or trucks. In a 3-year old classroom today, the children were playing with rescue vehicles, making them so strong and magical that they could fly through the air to rescue people. No explicit mention was made of the bombing, but the children could in their play experience an enhanced sense of their own strength and master that will protect them against some of the adverse effects of traumatic events. Older children may want to make some kind of restitutive action such as writing letters or giving gifts to the first responders. Regardless of how unrealistic the child’s ideas might be, parents should treat them with respect. One 5-year old boy told me Monday that he had a plan to throw blueberries at the bad guys, and I just nodded with interest.

 

 

 

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