Boston Marathon bombing. Can children handle the truth?

I didn’t see the car ahead. I turned too sharply. My car rolled 3 times. My children were in the back.

This wasn’t me. It was a story a friend told me a few years ago. Thankfully, apart from the shock, everyone was physically fine.

Once the ambulance and police had cleared the scene the family was sent home. I heard a few days later that the children had been unusually; yet understandably, quiet that evening. No one had spoken much more of the accident. The parents thought not discussing it would mean it would not cause any more distress to their kids. They wanted to let it blow over.

The next day, on the advice of others, the parents sat down with their kids and simply said,

“how do you feel about what happened?”.

Well the dam opened. Questions came pouring out. Conversations about why it happened, what the emergency services did, what it was like to spin around upside down in a car, why they were not hurt, how scary yet how cool it was etc etc.

For the children it felt like they were given permission to talk about it. Like it was ok. That they had done nothing wrong. From that moment the children returned to their normal selves. They had been internalising. Wondering what had happened but too scared to talk about it.

While it sounds like common sense to discuss this kind of thing with your kids. Sometime you are not sure if they can handle it.

This week has been a big news week. The threats by North Korea being one. The Essendon football club drugs scandal another and now the Boston Marathon bombing. While one may seem irrelevant in the face of the other two, they are all worthy of serious discussion.

My wife thinks our boys are too young to watch the news on the bombings. The images are certainly graphic but just like the car accident I don’t think we can ignore it. I think it is important they watch and discuss.

Children soak up everything. They hear adults talk, they listen to the radio in the car, they watch the news, they read the headlines, they talk in the playground.

I asked my son if he had heard any news about Essendon. He told me they took drugs. When I asked why he said:

“to make them run faster.”

And so began the conversation about drugs, the difference between drugs you take when you are sick and the drugs that the sports ‘stars’ are using.

And now with the bombings the questions have started. What happened? Why did it happen? Who did it? Will it happen to us? Who were the people that died? Are we safe?

And so I ask is it ok to show them the TV footage? How graphic is too graphic? When I compare it to the shows they watch on TV some of the graphics while in cartoon form can be explicit. Some of the movies they watch show injuries, death and destruction.

Children are not fragile. They can handle more than we think.

My limited research has shown there are a few ways to handle this:

Rule 1: Know your child. Tailor your tone and content of your explanation to the age and temperament of the child.

Rule 2: Find out what your child already knows. Ask your child if they have heard anything about the event. Kids learn more from their peers than we think they do. Knowing what your child has been told will help you determine which details to include—and what confusions need to be cleared up—when you tell your story.

Rule 3: Focus on resilience. Explain how the community, city or country rallied around to help and support those caught up in the event and how the country’s leader is taking steps to prevent this kind of attack from happening again.

Rule 4: Tell your story calmly. If you explain the story and remain calm your child is more likely to understand the importance of it. Discuss it in a highly emotional way and they will only absorb the emotion and not the content.

Rule 5: Explain safety in logical, concrete terms. There is no logical explanation of why these acts of terror occur but you can explain the logical steps taken to prevent future attacks. For example we now have to take off our shoes when passing through metal detectors at airports. This is a preventative measure following 9/11

Rule 6: Keep explanations of your emotions brief. A child cannot understand the enormity of intense adult emotions. You can briefly explain how you feel but it is better to focus on the feelings of your child. Ask “how do you feel about this”.

Rule 7: Help children take constructive action. Children typically learn the most by doing. One of the most effective ways to teach your child resilience is through volunteering. By taking constructive action —working with a group to help others or raising money—kids learn the healing role of empathy and social responsibility. Donating toys or books to a charity shop is another active way to show support.

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