Boston Marathon: Poise, no TV key to helping kids cope, says pediatrician

As TV images of the Boston Marathon bombings proliferate, it's important for parents to turn off the tube and, speaking calmly, share their own fears with their children, says a nationally recognized pediatrician. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Boston Marathon runners and spectators wait to get back to their hotel, on Monday in Boston, Massachusetts. Several hours after two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, the city is cordoned off around the bomb site and filled with law enforcement officials.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings children to know: “Why did this happen?” and “Should I be afraid?” Dr. David J. Schonfeld, chief pediatrician at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, Philadelphia, a member of the Sandy Hook Commission on School Crises, advised me today that in order to teach life-long coping skills parents must turn off the TV and share the truth about their own fears with their kids, but in a completely drama-free tone.

This morning I asked Dr. Schonfeld if we should let kids of any age watch the images of the Boston bombings on the news and social media and he said that he limits his own exposure to them because, “It’s been shown that those who have a higher exposure to TV coverage of this kind have much more difficulty coping. Why would you keep showing it? Visualizing trauma doesn’t help us overcome it at all.”

“If you want to teach your child how to cope then you need to model the behavior. Don’t try and hide it from them and put on a happy face because they can sense that you’re not being real. What they take away from that is that you know something bad happened and you don’t want to talk about it. Then they in turn learn not to come to you when they are upset or worried about something in their lives.”

Schonfeld added, “You want to be as calm and reassuring as possible while telling them the truth about how you are feeling. Tell your child that you were upset and afraid when you first saw the images and heard this news and that you were worried too.”

Still, he admits, kids are going to see the images we don’t want them to see and hear all about how two bombs struck near the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday; that the death toll has risen to three and that one of the dead is an 8-year-old boy. They will learn that over 100 were injured at the scene, according to CNN. However, they do not have to learn to live in fear.

In an attack like this, millions are spiritually injured by the impact of the news of these events and that’s just what bombers like to see. The answer I give my sons and any child who asks me is that the “why they did it” is not as important as “why we can’t let this stop us from living our lives.”  

During the Gulf War, I was stationed in Tel Aviv for a month, and SCUD missiles would take out an entire neighborhood in the pre-dawn hours and moms would be waiting in the rubble for the school bus in the morning with their kids.

I will never forget the looks of determination on the faces of elementary school children as they boarded the bus with their backpacks over one shoulder and gas masks in cardboard boxes decorated with stickers, hung from straps over the other shoulder.

That is the image I conjured as I watched the news from Boston with three of my four sons.

My 9-year-old son who loves to run and competed in his first official race at his elementary school last fall has been riveted to the news. As the media storm broke and we were deluged with horrible images and the thunder of the explosion being played over and over again on every channel, I grounded myself to be his lightning rod.

I had our first son, Zoltan, 19, after returning from Israel and when he was a toddler and a massive thunder storm hit, my husband taught me a parenting lesson, similar to the one I’d witnessed in Israel.

Zoltan was just a toddler during his first big storm, and as I ran to scoop up our son my husband came in like an NFL star and blocked me saying, “Don’t! If you rush him with that look on your face and use your scared voice not to be afraid, he’ll always be afraid.”

Back then all I wanted to do was cuddle our toddler for mutual comfort. Last night I felt that same urge to draw my son close for comfort and reassurance, but I didn’t because I knew my husband was right. I knew it because the only one of our four sons who flinches during a storm is the youngest, Quin, because he was at a friend’s house during his first storm and all the kids and the mom there freaked out to the max. It was hard to undo that impression.

So when Quin walked into the room as I stood watching the news from Boston I worked hard to rearrange my features into my practiced blank look.

“There’s a bomb at a race?” Quin asked in a shaky voice. He was reading the news crawl on CNN aloud and at that early stage his voice carried the words, “Two dead? 28 injured? Limbs lost? I don’t see trees in the video what limbs are they talking about?"

Quin loves to run, and Zoltan, who is at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. studying Homeland Security and Criminal Justice, is a runner who was home this past weekend and mentioned in front of Quin that he hopes to do the Boston marathon next year.

“Was Zoltan there?” he demanded. I explained his brother was safe in Richmond, and Quin finally turned away from the screen and I could feel his eyes on me, scanning every inch of my face for clues on how to react. I have actually practiced my neutral look in the mirror in years past and at this point I wasn’t giving anything away.

Instead of whisking him away from the TV, covering his eyes or drawing him close for the hug, I watched with him and calmly, rationally gave him all the answers I could.

After a while, Quin said, “So it’s random then. We can’t do anything about random.”

I assured him that was the case and also that when things like this happen, people in the FBI and Homeland Security, like his big brother Zoltan, learn more about how to prevent it from ever happening again. 

“So the odds go up in favor of the good people?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered.

However, this morning when I saw the local paper with the word "TERROR" in bold black letters taking up everything from the banner to the fold and below the fold a photo of a man drenched in blood, I hid it. I didn’t want that to be the day-two message my kids see.

The word actually made me furious because that is not the message Americans need to focus on today. We need words like PRAYER and ANSWERS. The image we need is that of the volunteers who ran toward the danger in the moments after the blast in order to rescue others.  

When I asked Quin how he was feeling about the events he’d seen on TV yesterday, he answered, “Well, I’m freaked out because I still can’t understand it. I just can’t understand why you would do something so horrible. I know I’m safe but until I understand it, I guess the freak-out’s still there.”

Man’s inhumanity to man is not going to end anytime soon. No matter how many answers we get from the investigators, as parents we know that as in cases like 9/11, Sandy Hook, and now Boston, the message to give kids is that we’re here and safe, and our very best people are on the job making sure the bad guys come to justice and we come to no further harm.

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