Guest Author - Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D., F.A.A.P.
It’s an all too familiar scenario these days. One minute we are happily going about our lives and the next we hear that another unexpected horrible world event has occurred. I knew immediately by the expression on my husband’s face that something in the world was amiss. I quickly went to turn off the TV news but it was too late – my ten year old daughter had already heard that there were explosions in London. “Was it as bad as 9/11? Do you think they’ll catch the bad guys this time?” Now, a year later, we have to face a similar discussion but with a personal twist as she grapples with one of her closest friends moving back home to Israel. “Will she be near the bombs? Her family is far away from the bombs, right?”
Good questions with difficult answers. These events shatter not only our feeling of security in the world but our hopes our children’s futures. Thankfully, children are not small adults and their lack of life experience actually protects them from our adult concerns. Children of all ages cope well just knowing that the integrity of their own worlds, their own safety, and the safety of those they know and love are intact. They still have that wonderful ability to believe everything will turn out fine.
Dr. Paula Rauch, Director of the Child Psychiatry Consultation Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, emphasizes the need to not only find out what the child has heard and to clarify the details of the event but to emphasize the rarity of these events in the big picture of the world. For example, to answer my daughter’s questions about whether the bad guys would get caught, Dr. Rauch suggested an answer such as “It's a good question. I can't be sure, but I hope so. I know there will be a lot of smart people looking for them….There will always be a small number of "bad" people in the world and luckily a much bigger number of caring ones. A surprise thing could happen, but it is really, really rare.”
The age of your children is your best guide for how to comment on any difficult event. Small children, preschoolers and kindergarteners, should be told little about tragic world events. The fantasy world of small children and their lack of understanding about space and time make it difficult for them to grasp what has occurred. For this age group, you may need to let them know that something scary happened far away from home but that everyone they know is safe.
As children get older, what you tell them will of course become more detailed. For all children, including teenagers, discussions need to be simple. Media exposure should be monitored closely at this age. Many experts feel that a parent should be present if a child is going to see a traumatic image in any media forum. This is sound advice for all of us to follow.
Helping a child see what is really in their control can be very reassuring. Notes Dr. Rauch, “a parent could say...my approach as a grown up is to pay attention to the safety things I can do that protect us from things that happen more often. Look both ways crossing the street. Wear a bike helmet. Know your important phone numbers if you need to call parents…The adage "Think Globally. Act Locally" is a good way to think about safety”.
We all know people who have been touched directly by these events and clearly the more personal the event is for a family the more difficult it will be for a child. Consult your pediatrician or a child psychiatrist if you have concerns about any world event’s impact on your child. The earlier you address these issues, the easier it will be to help your child.
There are many excellent sources of information available to you. Your pediatrician is always an excellent resource, especially if you are worried about your child becoming too anxious by the news they are hearing. Additional information can be found on line at: The American Academy of Pediatrics (www.aap.org), New York University Child Study Center ( ) and PBS (www.pbs.org).
Preserving the rhythm of our children’s lives is ultimately what will reassure them that the world as they know it is still ok. And, maintaining that rhythm as a community is what will prevent the terrorists from getting the upper hand. A friend of mine said it best at a recent Concord Band rehearsal: “The world may be unraveling as we speak but at least we have something civilized to look forward to and do each week”. So, embrace what is important to you and keep on doing it.