Ask Dr. Leigh: How National Tragedies Impact Our Children

I had a number of responses last week asking about the impact of the Boston Marathon bombing on children. Parents are concerned, “what do I say to my children when they see the images of this disaster on television, or overhear other children talking about it?” How do we explain such madness and evil to innocent children being bred on Caillou, gluten-free vitamins, and Knuffle Bunny books?

And from one mother in Los Angeles, I received a poignant account of how she went into labor only minutes after the towers came down on 9/11.  She talked about how difficult it was to have a child born when such a disaster had happened but once she saw his face, all fears dissolved. This little boy’s birthday became a hallmark of joy but also a remembrance of catastrophic loss. In his childhood he was exposed to Columbine, The Aurora Theatre Shooting, the unspeakable tragedy of Sandy hook Elementary School, and now the Boston Marathon. This mother questions the impact that all of this will have on her son who will be entering adolescence in a year.” Will he ever believe in God? “Will he want to have children of his own?” “What does he envision for his future?”

Children tell me bits and pieces of what they have heard and it is often misinformation. They try to put together some cohesion in a story that has no reason.. And when I ask them if they are afraid, more often than not, they say no. In fact, the younger the child, the less afraid.

Although I advise that young children under the age of six not be exposed to these tragedies, and that parents not watch television or listen to car radio coverage of the trauma,  it is amazing how many children know what is happening in the world. Even in the most protective households, children can be exposed to information at their daycare, the playground, or at their preschools. And if that is the case, it is very important for parents to talk to their children about any information they are receiving.

However, in the broader perspective, are these tragic events going to change the way our children see the world?

Children, at a young age, become aware of the “bad” things that exist in the world. Though fairy-tales and Disney movies they learn that evil can set out to destroy good. And it has long been recognized that reading these fairy tales has helped young children throughout the centuries to cope with the dichotomy of life: good and evil, life and death.

A five-year-old boy come into the playroom one afternoon a few days after the Boston Marathon bombing; a worried look on his face. “The thing that happened at Boston…you know those guys with the backpacks and bombs, well this isn’t what happens in the movies.”

I asked him to explain.

“In Spider Man movies, the bad guy is trying to hurt everybody but Spider Man saves the world. This didn’t happen here, the bad guys killed people.”

What a revelation! Life does not parallel movies. Bad things do happen. And to my little client, this was very frightening.

Most of the impact on children is a direct result of how the media covers such disasters. Let’s take a look over the decades, and even centuries to find a time that was peaceful and free of fear. We can’t.  Because there have always been times of famine, dust bowls, world wars, big time gangsters, and punks who made their fame by flagrantly disregarding the law. But because of the technological sophistication of our twenty-first media, our attention, focus, and interest is being directed toward full blown tragedies that unfold right before our eyes.

Many of the young children who come into the playroom ask me if I have heard about Boston, Sandy hook Elementary, and the Aurora Theatre. I nod my head and ask them what they have heard. Almost all the children know the names of the perpetrators; none knew a single name of a victim. This is a direct result of the media coverage. The evil-doers are catapulted into notoriety. And in many cases this is exactly what they desire.

Reality television has blurred the lines between fantasy and reality and, unfortunately for children, tragedy morphs into another form of entertainment. Therefore it is essential that parents block much of the media coverage and focus instead on protecting children in a healthy and balanced way. That does not mean that if children ask questions about the Boston Marathon Bombing you don’t answer them. Responses to children should be honest and limited to their stage of development. Having family discussions about these events can be important in helping children cope with a world that can be, at times, frightening and unpredictable.

If your child has a secure and loving home, and you modulate your child’s knowledge of the world in appropriate developmental ways, than there is little need to worry that your child will grow up thinking that the world is a terrible, scary place. What happens at home in the early years of development lays the foundation for security, trust, and self-esteem. Despite the chaos that sometimes exists in the world, make your home a safe haven; a perfect place to nest your fledglings.



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