April 16, 2013

Pediatrician’s Perspective: Talking to Kids about Terrorism

Ken Haller, M.D., a SLUCare pediatrician at Cardinal Glennon and associate professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University, reflects on explaining the Boston Marathon bombings to children.
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So what do you say to a kid at a time like this? It depends on the kid, of course, how old they are, how much they've seen about this on TV. So let's start with that. There is going to be saturation coverage of this for the next few days, at least. This may be the time to get out "The Little Mermaid" or "The Lion King" and let your kids watch it for the gazillionth time. Being a parent means protecting your kid as much as you can and that includes protecting them from psychological violence. Seeing video of bloody runners over and over is not appropriate for kids. So switch to Nickelodeon or Disney or PBS Kids -- or better yet, play a board game, read a book, toss a baseball, go bike riding -- but stay away from CNN while the younger kids are in the room. 

Now’s the time to pick up a book and turn off the TV. Photo by Riya V. Anandwala

But of course, at some point they are going to hear about it. Because that is how things are. What do you say when your kids come to you and ask, "Is someone going to put a bomb at a race, at the Cardinal's game or anyplace where a bunch of people come together to have fun?" Your answer is, "No." But it could happen, they say. Yes, and you could win the $500 million Powerball also, but deep in your heart, even as you're buying the ticket, you know it's not going to happen. These sorts of horrific events occur about 20 times a year, about as often as a Powerball drawing. There are thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of places where lots of people gather. The chance that your kid is going to be in a place where that is going to happen is so vanishingly small that you can be 99.9999 percent accurate when you answer their fearful question with a "No." And how often in life do we ever get that kind of assurance? So in this case, do as Nancy Reagan says, and Just Say No.

Yeah, you say, but my kid is 8. He's gonna say, "But an 8-year-old runner was blown up by a bomb at the Boston Marathon. How can you say something like this is not gonna happen to me?" Well, you could go into statistics about chance as well as the human tendency toward magical thinking and the need for control -- why else do people not fly because they're afraid of a plane crash yet have no qualms about driving everywhere when their chances of dying in a car accident are hugely greater - and of course, the media's attention to spectacular events as opposed to everyday hazards -- the other reason for driving rather than flying. But I agree, that probably won't work. So here you say, "You know, you're right. When I see something so horrible as this, it really, really scares me. It scares me that some person could do something like that, and I would never ever see you again. Now you tell me what you're scared of." This is when your kid will tell you whatever they need to tell you. Take it in. Reflect it back. Recognize that your child is growing up and starting to see that the world is not always safe. This is the beginning of wisdom.

And here you say, "I wish I could tell you that everything will always be safe. Most likely it will. But the important thing for you to know is that, no matter what happens, I love you, I'll be there for you, and I am going to do everything in my power to protect you. Always." Then hug it out.

The greatest fear that kids -- and indeed all humans -- have is that they will be left alone, abandoned to an insane, inhuman world. In fact as we learn more about the histories of those who commit such horrific crimes, this is a horrifyingly consistent trait. As children grow and mature, they will realize over time that not everything is perfect. Less is every day. But if they can be assured that there are people in their lives who are there lovingly with them on their journey, they will not live their lives in timid fear but in joyful curiosity and wonder.

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