Experts offer tips for talking to kids about Boston bombing

Published: Saturday, April 20 2013 6:57 a.m. MDT

Medical workers aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following explosions in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. Two explosions shattered the euphoria of the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday, sending authorities out on the course to carry off the injured while the stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts.

Charles Krupa, Associated Press

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Terrifying, televised news images of fear and suffering scare children, and in the wake of 9/11 led to hundreds of cases of kids who developed post-traumatic stress disorder from seeing too many disturbing scenes on TV news broadcasts.

That PTSD epidemic created a conundrum for Joanne Cantor, who studies how media consumption affects human brains.

“For that kind of situation, it’s hard to know what to say to the very young kids,” she said. “Because little kids think it’s happening over and over again when they see it happening over and over again. And if you say something like ‘this hardly ever happens,’ they don’t understand that.”

Cantor, the director of the University of Wisconsin's Center for Communication Research, eventually wrote a children’s book aimed at helping kids cope with scary images on their home televisions.

‘Teddy’s TV Troubles’ is a book about this little teddy bear that’s frightened by something he saw on TV,” Cantor said. “It never says what the bear saw on TV, because why should you bring up some new fear? But it’s for kids and parents to read together and go through.”

After the Boston Marathon bombing killed three people and maimed scores more, countless parents wondered whether and how to talk to their kids about the tragedy. No matter how hard parents might work to shield children from disturbing images, media coverage of the Boston bombing was so ubiquitous that virtually any media consumption by a child seemed to guarantee exposure to the bombing. Experts like Cantor and Harvard psychiatry professor Eugene Beresin have research-based, practical tips parents can employ to insulate their younger kids from and prepare older children to cope with news of real-life tragedies like the Boston bombing.

Picking up on parents’ cues

Even though they won’t grasp the scope of tragic events on the nightly news, very young children — especially those ages 5 and under — are still vulnerable to emotional distress vis-à-vis the signals their caregivers exude.

“(Young kids) don’t really understand world events, but they’ll know their parents are upset,” said Beresin, who is also the director of residency training for child psychiatry at two major Massachusetts hospitals. “They’re more concerned with actions than actual events — so if they know that you’re upset they may need to be held, there may need to be cuddling, they may need to sleep with you at night.”

Cantor emphasized the importance of providing personalized attention to young children during a time of crisis.

“If kids see their parents really upset, that’s one of the scariest things for kids,” she said. “They look to their parents, and if their parents are obsessing and really freaked out, that’s an indirect way that television affects kids. … What you really need for young kids, if they are frightened by something like that, is to just do some calming things with them — pay attention to them, play with them. If they’re afraid, they don’t really need to discuss it as much as they need your calm, warm attention.”

Age-appropriate dialogue

For purposes of counseling parents on how to talk to their kids about something like the Boston bombing, Beresin divides children into two categories: “school-aged” (ages 6-13) and teenagers (14 and above). In both cases, he suggests opening any dialogue with a very broad line of questioning.

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