Four Questions with Jenifer Goldman Fraser of the Child Witness to Violence Project
I’m truly at a loss for words about last week’s Boston Marathon bombing. I’m sure many of you are too. But that doesn’t mean your child won’t be asking questions. This week’s Four Questions is with Jenifer Goldman Fraser, associate director of the Child Witness to Violence Project through the Boston Medical Center.
Your organization offers some really wonderful tips on how to talk to children about the Boston Marathon tragedy. But I’ve noticed that a lot of them include assuring children that this happened far away from them. How do we reassure children who actually witnessed this event?
You are right. Children who witnessed or were nearby the bombings and children who know anyone injured or whose family was affected directly by the bombings, will need more support in the days and weeks ahead. Children in Watertown who witnessed the explosions during the firefight between the suspects and the police or who heard the explosions that night will also need special attention. Children who experienced the lockdowns, even in towns far removed from Watertown, also were directly exposed to a very frightening situation.
For young children, the overriding concern is their own safety and that of their parents. They will need to hear the comforting words, “You are safe and Mommy and Daddy are safe,” patiently repeated as much as needed, and to be told that there are many people working to keep them safe.
For children who are just learning to talk, simply saying, “Mommy’s here,” is a message of safety. Even if a young child—or an older child—isn’t saying anything, adults need to help them put their feelings into words: anger, sadness and worry about the safety of parents, friends or siblings.
For young children, reassurance also takes the form of heightened comfort and soothing—more hugs, hand-holding, time in their parents’ arms and on their laps, and being allowed to stay close. They need to be assured that a parent will be back when he or she leaves and given a realistic time when the parent will be coming back, in words they can understand. And parents need to return when expected.
Young children may also be confused about whether the danger is over. Parents should expect to give simple, repeated explanations as needed, every day, making sure to use simple words: “The police are on the streets now making sure there are no more bombs. Mommy and Daddy are safe and you are safe.” Or, “The police have caught the people who did this and are keeping us safe.” Also, predictability and familiar routines are very, very important: calming activities before bedtime, singing soothing songs and telling favorite stories with comforting themes.
Being a steadfast source of comfort and security to children right now is challenging, particularly for adults who were directly affected alongside their children and are struggling with their own intense feelings of terror, horror, sadness and anger. Because a parent’s reactions deeply affect his or her child’s reactions to a frightening event, it’s especially important that adults check in with themselves and take stock of their own thoughts and beliefs and feelings. By stepping back, parents can manage their feelings.
A first step is turning off the TV or radio and instead finding support and connection with others so as not to be alone with intense feelings. It’s also important that parents take care of themselves physically—drinking plenty of water, eating regularly and getting enough sleep and exercise.
If children are continuing to show fearfulness, regressive behaviors, are unusually quiet or agitated, and/or have sleep problems for over a month, or parents have any questions about their children’s behavior, they should check in with a counselor. The pediatrician or school is a good place to start for a referral. We are fortunate that we know more today about how to help children heal after trauma than at any time in the past. Parents shouldn’t hesitate to talk with a counselor if they have any concerns.
A lot of people focus on the right things to say, but what about the opposite: Are there some things we should never say to kids about an event like this?
We should never provide children with detail about what happened. Stick with a neutral, matter-of-fact explanation, such as: “Some people got hurt very badly when the bomb blew up. They were taken to the hospital and the doctors and nurses are taking care of them and helping them to feel better. The police are on the streets now making sure that we are safe.”
For school-age children, more explanation will be needed, but it should be straightforward and also minimal in detail. They may ask who put the bomb there and if anyone died. An honest answer is required. Adolescents may want a more in-depth discussion, including talk about terrorism and acknowledging the difficult nature of this problem.
Although parents can control what they say to their children, it’s another story with the media. Images and stories in the news and on the radio and messaging on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter can trigger or exacerbate fears of bombings happening again. We need to protect children from media exposure, which can be damaging.
It was school vacation last week, so most children were with their parents. But today people are going back to school, and they may hear things from their friends or teachers that will be disturbing. What advice do you have for them?
Undoubtedly our educators will have been busy preparing for the children’s return to school, deciding as a staff how to talk with children and preparing to communicate their plan to parents. This week and beyond, parents should gently check in with their children, asking if their friends or teachers are talking about what happened.
This is an important time to correct inaccuracies. Parents can explain that rumors get started that are not true and we should only pay attention to the facts from official people like the police or president. Regularly checking in with your children presents helpful openings to remind them that you are always available to talk about what happened and to encourage them to come to you with questions.
What you do must take its toll on you, too. How do you take care of your own mental health? What do you do to unwind?
Spending time with my family is the most important way I keep centered and tend to my emotional health. I practice mindfulness meditation—it’s a powerful way to keep distressing thoughts at bay. I’m also very involved with my temple, Kerem Shalom in Concord, where I find tremendous spiritual nourishment and peace. My Jewish spiritual life and worldview helps me stay balanced and hopeful in doing the sacred and heart-wrenching work of tikkun olam (repairing the world).
Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!