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Gillian Slattery and daughter Rian, 6, read together in early 2012. Slattery and her husband Steve, explained to Rian what happened in the Boston bombings.

In wake of Boston and Waco, parents talk to their kids about tragedy

by Sarah Devin Kaufman and Elissa Nadworny
April 25, 2013

Seven-year-old Rian Slattery was more frustrated with not being able to watch her evening My Little Pony episode, than with what was happening on the news in Boston.

Still, Rian’s mom, Gillian Slattery, an ex-Bostonian, said she felt compelled to share the events of the marathon bombing with her grade-school-aged daughter.

“We sat her down and explained in simple terms what had happened, because she knows Boston, and we knew she’d hear about it at school with her friends,” said Slattery, who now lives in New York.

According to her mom, Rian was easy. She felt sad for the good guys, but after a couple minutes, she was back to her normal routine.

“The challenge with young kids is that they often won’t ask about what they’ve seen or heard,” said Gail Conway, CEO of Chicago Metro Association for the Education of Young Children.

Conway said emotions can manifest in physical reaction and it can often take longer for certain children to outwardly react to a tragedy.

“It’s more about the behavior, like not being able to sleep,” Conway said.

Constantly watching 

Susan Smith of Fort Wayne, Ind., a mother of four, has learned how to comfort her children in response to tragic news events. Her youngest daughter, who was in second grade when 9/11 happened, began having nightmares months after the attacks.

“As a parent, you really don’t know what’s going on with them, what’s affecting them,” Smith said. “After 9/11 we had family discussions and made sure the kids knew they were safe.”

A year later, when their daughter was in third grade, the Columbia space shuttle exploded, killing all seven crew members. “That really affected her because she was interested in space,” Smith said. “She watched the news, cried, and was really upset.”

Exposing children to looped footage on the news can sometimes lead to “magical thinking” where the child thinks it’s her fault the tragedies happened and will turn to her own behavior to change the past, said Dr. Paramjit Joshi, an expert in the psychological effects of trauma in children.

“Because the kids are at that age focused on themselves developmentally speaking, somehow they feel they have had something to do with this tragedy,” explained Joshi, director of psychiatry at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

When children this age view a traumatic event, such as the Columbia explosion, over and over on television, they don’t understand the image is a loop and the tragedy is not happening repeatedly in real life, according to Joshi.

“It re-traumatizes them each time they see it because cognitively speaking they can’t think of the abstract,” she said.

In the weeks after the Columbia explosion, Smith’s daughter built a spaceship out of Legos. “She was determined to build something that would have prevented the explosion,” said Smith.

Discovering ways for children to express emotions is important after they are exposed to tragic events Conway said. She suggests that activities such as coloring, drawing, building and playing can help them deal with how they are feeling.

While parents’ first reaction may be to shield their children from the news for risk of scaring them or making them feel sad or fearful, Conway says experiencing a range of emotions and seeing parents show sadness, anger and fear actually helps children develop.

“This is a horrible thing, but it’s also an opportunity to allow children to see sadness, to be sad, to be whatever it is they’re feeling … to show what we typically call negative emotions,” Conway said.

Parents are kids' barometers 

When something big happens on the news, Lauren Solarski, a kindergarten teacher at St. Malachy in Chicago, makes sure to emphasize that both positive and negative emotions can be acceptable.

Solarski likes to sit with students at lunch and snack in order to get a feel for what’s happening. She draws back on her class lessons about emotions to let them know it’s OK to feel sad or upset.

“It’s usually a lot of bad guy, good guy stuff,” Solarski said. “Because it’s more simple for them, understanding basic emotions can let them know it’s going to be OK.”

If parents are comfortable with their emotions, children may be too. Many children mirror what they see in their parents and teachers, exhibiting emotions they observe in adults, according to the Urban Child Institute in Memphis, Tenn.

“Adults are children’s emotional barometers,” Conway said. She stressed the importance of not overly dramatizing the situation for children, and making sure children know they are safe.

“All research has shown after the traumatic event, if the primary caregiver’s psychological resilience is good, the child will do so much better,” Joshi said.

A technique for parents to quell their child’s anxiety is to focus on exciting events that are happening or recently happened in her life, such as a birthday or Christmas, said Joshi. She also recommended keeping the same structure in a child’s life.

“Don’t be tempted to keep a child home and disrupt the child’s schedule. It’s better to harness their free-floating anxiety in a productive way,” she said.

Even, for example, in war-torn countries where schools have been demolished, Joshi points to agencies like Red Cross that set up schools in tents to provide structure for the children. This gives students a framework in which to function and empowers them because they find success and comfort within that new structure.

Grief is a natural process in all ages and is expressed differently in every child, Joshi said. As much as parents can try to follow experts’ advice, each child is different, and parental response should be tailored to the individual.

Smith’s daughter is 19 now, and when the Boston marathon bombings happened, Smith didn’t shield her from the TV. “I did discourage her, though, from getting a whole evening of input on that subject matter because we’ve learned she is sensitive, and she takes it to heart.”

In hindsight, Smith realized tragic news events affected her kids more than she thought. “You grow as parents, and when they’re young you’re learning along with them.”