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Moving forward after the Boston Marathon bombings: advice for parents

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  April 18, 2013 05:09 AM

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Thumbnail image for marathon hug.jpgA few days have passed since the Boston Marathon bombings. We are all still stunned, but the initial shock is wearing off. The news is moving from the horrors of the moment to stories about the investigation--and heartbreaking details about the victims.

The conversations that parents have with their children need to change, too. Before, it was telling them what happened, and hugging them and reassuring them. Now, we need to find a way to move forward.

Every family will do that in a different way. But as families find their way, here is some advice:

Hug your kids. I said this before when I was talking about what parents should do first; there's nothing like an event like this to remind us how vulnerable we and everyone we love are, and we should use that reminder wisely. Well, keep hugging. Once the moment passes, we have a way of getting back into our old ways and habits, but don't let it happen with this. Strive to make your loved ones feel loved on a regular basis. Set up some new rituals of togetherness and connection. It will help you and your children in the days and weeks (and years) to come, and it's a good way to...

Honor the victims. I think it's important to do this. It's natural to want to shelter your children and so to not talk about the fact that there were people killed and maimed by the explosions. You don't need to talk about the gory details--it's better not to, with young children. But I do think it's good to teach children to show solidarity with and compassion for those who are hurt. Maybe it's a donation. Maybe it's going to a vigil. Maybe it's planting flowers, or a tree, in their honor. The idea is to teach your children that we are all connected, and that what hurts one of us hurts all of us.

Keep the lines of communication open. We all are going to need time to process what happened. New feelings will arise as we hear news updates. We will feel anxious, whether it's when we are at a crowded event, or when we hear a loud noise--or sometimes for no clear reason at all. Same goes for our children. So be ready and willing to talk, to hug, to sort through and cope with the questions and feelings that may arise.

It's normal for your child to be cranky, clingy or anxious after events like these. I know I'm feeling that way. But if your child is having a lot of trouble, if they don't start to get back to themselves after a few days or if you just aren't sure how to handle things, talk to your doctor.

Think about safety. The sad reality is that we live in a time when anything can happen. You don't want to freak your kids out, but at the same time, it's a good idea to make, or review, some safety rules for your family. It doesn't all have to be related to terrorism--every family should have a fire evacuation plan, for example, and even little kids can be taught to dial 911. But it's good to talk about staying together in crowds, and about what to do if you get separated and who you can go to for help.

With older children, set clear rules about always letting a parent know where they are. Talk about being watchful when they are out in the world, about being careful around things like stray bags or people who are acting oddly. There's no way to prevent someone you love from being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but you can teach your children to be more aware of their environment.

Find the helpers, and teach your child to be one. Many people who were at the scene have spoken about how while lots of people were running away (as the police were telling them to do), there were also lots of people who were running to help. The fact that only three people died at the scene of those horrible explosions is a testament to those helpers, those people who put pressure on bleeding wounds and got people into ambulances and otherwise made all the difference in those crucial first minutes. Some of them had medical training, but many of them were ordinary people who leapt into action--and saved lives.

There's a quote from Fred Rogers that's been in the media a lot this week:
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers--so many caring people in this world."

Talk about those helpers, those people who ran to the scene. Or the people who opened up their homes, the restaurants who fed people or the doctors and nurses who rushed to their hospitals to help. Talk about how all of us can be helpers to each other, in little ways as well as big ways. Model being a helper: offer to help carry groceries for someone, cook a meal (or make a get-well-soon card) for a sick neighbor, volunteer for a playground clean up, bring food to a food pantry. Even simple things, like holding the door for someone or asking if you can help someone who looks lost or upset, are important. 

Teach your children that not only can they always help somehow--but they always should. Yes, you need to teach them to be careful of their own safety (sometimes the best way a child can help is by alerting an adult), but you also need to teach them that we need to take care of each other. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty." 

By teaching them to help, you'll not just be teaching them compassion but empowering them. You will be teaching them that terrorism can't defeat the human spirit. The human spirit, and the connections between us, will always prevail.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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