I really can’t believe I’m writing this post. I feel like I just wrote it four months ago, after the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. But with the realization that I can do almost nothing from several states away to help the people of Boston, I hope that I can at least help parents around the country in deciding how to talk to their kids about what happened at the Boston Marathon. Parent educator and psychotherapist Dr. Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., offered some helpful advice this morning in a phone interview.
At first, I thought that kids might not react as strongly to this news story as they did to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, because that involved a lot of children in a place that’s supposed to be safe. However, as this story unfolds, we know that, in fact, many children were directly affected. Public schools are closed in Boston on the day of the Boston Marathon, so many children were there to cheer on the runners. Many children were injured; eight-year-old Martin Richard died waiting to greet his father at the finish line.
It was a marathon: a celebration of health, happiness, endurance, community. A celebration of Boston. No matter what comes of the investigation, no matter who is responsible, this is terrorism.
We have four kids; twin girls in sixth grade, another daughter in third grade, and a son in first grade. I didn’t talk with them about this last night because honestly, all three of our daughters have diagnosed anxiety disorders, and bedtime is not the right time for a discussion like this. Our son, who has Asperger Syndrome, tends to be very anxious too.
I didn’t talk about this yet with my nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son. I should have. It will come up in school today, certainly for my third grader. Dr. Heffner concurred.
“I spoke with a dad this morning whose 10-year-old daughter received a text, ‘let’s pray for the people in Boston,’” she said to me in a phone interview. “Even little kids today walk around with cell phones. It’s a technological world, so it’s very hard to know what your children are picking up. Even if they haven’t watched the news, they’re connected in other ways.”
One issue holding me up on discussing it with them was knowing what was age-appropriate. Should I even talk about it with my seven-year-old? Can I possibly skip it altogether with my nine-year-old? She has massive anxiety issues and she’s currently recovering from post-concussion syndrome, and I know that this will trigger some difficulties for her.
Dr. Heffner advised me not to focus what’s appropriate for their age, but rather what’s appropriate for their developmental level, and what else is going in their lives. “There’s no one-size-fits all answer to these questions,” she said. “If a child has ongoing issues like anxiety, you probably have some resources to use in terms of how this will impact her. But at age nine, she is going to be getting some feedback on this. Undoubtedly it will come up in school one way or another.”
So, yes, I need to talk with my younger kids , too: both of them, bearing in mind that they’re already anxious people. I’ll talk to them after school. Conveniently, we have an appointment with our therapist tonight, but even if we didn’t, she’s only a phone call away.
Before I talk with them, I need to remember to keep my own anxiety in check, Dr. Heffner suggests. “As parents, we have our own anxiety,” she noted. “We have anxiety about the thing that happened, and then we have anxiety about how it will impact our children. Our job is to not put that anxiety on our children.”
Parents should start by finding out what their children already know (or think they know) about what happened in Boston, Dr. Heffner advised. Then, present the facts.
“You have to acknowledge that something bad happened,” Dr. Heffner said. “We can’t protect children from that. They know there are bad guys in the world. This is not something they can go through life without confronting. Our job as parents is to be there for them, and reassure them as much as we can, that we will protect them.
“You have to tell them, so that they begin to develop the ability to deal with these things on their own.”
Children may not react the way we expect them to, and they may not understand the implications of what happened, and that’s okay, said Dr. Heffner.
“It’s a reflection of the way children are,” she said. “They are literal. They are focused on concrete things. They don’t always react to things exactly as we do.”
On a personal note, this is a huge score for those of us with kids on the spectrum because we know alllllll about being literal and focusing on concrete things.
This morning, I did discuss what happened with my older daughters. In their middle school, they watch the news. They will hear about it. Rumors will fly. It is always better for us to have the conversation at home rather than let them hear garbled information from their peers. It is always better for us to provide context, give the facts, head off rumors.
I told them what happened: that two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, at a time when many, many runners were coming through. That three people died, including an eight-year-old boy. That as of latest reports, 145 people were injured, some of them still in critical condition.
I answered their questions: no, we don’t know who did it. We don’t know how many people are responsible. Boston police are working with lots of other government agencies to find out who did it. I reminded them that terrorist doesn’t mean the same thing as Muslim, but that a lot of people think it does.
I told them that it’s important to remember that yes, there are bad people in the world, but that there are many, many more good people than bad. I told them about people who helped, people who ran toward the explosion, people who cleared the path for ambulances. I told them about people who opened their homes to strangers, even though we don’t know who did this. I told them about marathon runners who crossed the street and donated blood after running for four hours.
What I didn’t do: I didn’t show them photos. I can barely handle them myself. I saw one of a man in a wheelchair, who was missing the lower parts of both legs. The man running alongside the wheelchair appeared to be holding an IV. It wasn’t. It was the victim’s femoral artery he was clamping shut with his fingers.
Is it important to for me, an adult, to know the truth of what happened, the horror of it? Yes. Do my 12-year-olds need to see that kind of thing? No.
“I think parents should always should use guidance on what their children watch and don’t watch,” said Dr. Heffner, while also reminding parents that kids with social media accounts (or even friends with social media accounts) may be seeing more than you think.
Especially coming on the heels of the Sandy Hook tragedy, parents are wise to always be observant of their children’s behavior. “Observe what your child is communicating to you through their behavior,” said Dr. Heffner. “If you’re seeing signs that something is really bothering them–sleep disruptions, nail-biting that wasn’t there before–ask them what’s going on.”
But don’t ask them about Boston right off the bat, because they might be worried about something much closer to home; standardized testing, softball try-outs, friend drama.
Dr. Heffner recommended opening up a conversation with “I think you’re worried about something. I see that you’re having trouble sleeping. Do you have any thoughts about what may be bothering you?”
If your child doesn’t open up, you can try digging a little bit more. “What happened in Boston was pretty upsetting. I wonder if you’re worried about that.”
Dr. Heffner, who is also the author of GoodEnoughMothering, said that often, just talking with a parent and knowing that someone understands, will help resolve the issue.
“No one knows a child as well as the parent,” she noted. “And parents can do a lot on their own. We live in a world where there’s a very quick assumption, that if something’s wrong, you need outside help immediately. I believe that parents have a lot more skill and power than they think they do.”
Dr. Heffner clarified that if a child’s worries are interfering with daily life, it might be time to seek some help. “Obviously, if the worrying persists, and interferes with their functioning, you might want to talk with somebody about it.”
“The most important thing you can do is to really be in touch with your own child,” she added.
Have you talked with your kids about the bombings at the Boston Marathon? I’d love for you to share in in the comments what’s worked for you and your family.
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