Experts offer advice on talking to children after tragedies

Posted at 4:45 PM, Apr 16, 2013
and last updated 2013-04-16 21:38:46-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- It can be difficult for parents to talk to their children about the Boston Marathon bombing, but experts say it’s important for parents to have an open conversation so families can find closure and understanding after tragic events.

Doctor Douglas Goldsmith, executive director of The Children’s Center, said children have a different sense of reality than adults do when it comes to the news.

“When we're looking at this from the kids’ perspective we worry about too much exposure to repeated news stories because children start to exaggerate that in their heads,” he said. “Young children don't understand that it happened far away, and they may feel that they're at risk even going to school or walking down the street."

Goldsmith said the way parents talk to children should be shaped by the child’s level of anxiety or worry about normal situations.

"Children who are scared at night, frightened of monsters under their bed, those children, if they see the repeated video on TV about the explosion, are going to have a much harder time getting that out of their head," he said.

Experts say incidents like Monday’s bombing or last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School can leave children feeling vulnerable and confused. Goldsmith said it’s important for parents to listen to their kids.

“Parents should ask more than tell,” he said. “They should ask the kids, ‘Were they talking about it at school today? What did you hear in the hallway?’ because there will be huge exaggerations that will happen in any school."

Doctor Mehmet Oz said parents should make sure they communicate answers and affection to their children.

"Answer any questions your children may have,” he said. “Tell them they are safe in their own home and schools, and that, while bad things happen, they are loved."

Elaine Heffner, psychotherapist and patient educator, said parents should avoid the impulse to shelter their children by pretending nothing happened or shielding them from the truth. Although, she said that doesn’t mean showing them graphic or disturbing videos or images of tragedies.

"But parents really need to be assured that it’s ok to talk to children about these things because the impulse of a parent is to somehow protect a child, and they feel that by not talking about it, or if they talk about it they are going to make the situation worse, but that's not true,” she said.

Oz said parents should try to provide an example to their children in times of trouble.

"You need to be strong,” he said. “You need to appear strong and to be stable as an example for all of them to see… Strengthening your own family bonds is a beautiful tribute to those we have lost or those who are injured."