Child Caring

Conversations with kids on the Marathon anniversary

My son is 11, totally freaking out this week with 1 year anniversary of the Marathon bombing. We were not there, he does not know anyone who was injured or killed, we don't even live near Boston! By freaking out, I mean anxious and easily tearing up. He is not usually like this. He told me he's worried there will be more bombings. My two other kids are younger and they are fine. Go figure. I have a feeling I should talk to him but I don't know what to say.
Western Mass Mom

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Dear Western Mass Mom,
Subjects like this become more scary and bigger and bigger when we don't talk about them because it leaves room in a child's mind for imagination to flourish. "The bomb that went off in Boston could go off here" is an easy leap for any child to make, especially in the absence of information from us, the people they trust the most. When we don't talk about it, the conclusion kids may come to is this: "This is so scary, mom and dad can't even talk about it." What's more, when we don't talk about it, it leaves space for less reliable sources, like classmates, kids on the bus or older siblings of classmates, to have an out-sized influence.
My advice to parents with kids of all ages is to take some time this week to have a conversation about the anniversary. (Keep reading.) Also keep in mind that kids who were too young last year to understand what was happening may now be cognitively able to grasp some aspect of it. Seeing the anniversary story on the news this week, many children of all ages may well think this is happening now, for real.
Children who had a first-hand connection to the Marathon bombing are most likely to experience symptoms of anxiety around the anniversary, but direct, first-hand exposure is not necessary for a child to be affected.
And while it's true young children are the ones we expect to put facts together in illogical ways, school-age kids do it, too. Plus, older kids like your son have more exposure to the world. For instance, it's possible one of your son's classmates, teachers or school employee had first-hand exposure, or has a relative who was involved. Hearing that person's story can make the event feel personal even to a child who is more than once- or twice-removed, like your son. Have you asked him if he knows about someone who was there?
Children who are anxious or empathetic by temperament; who have been exposed to violence in their family or neighborhood; or who see a lot of screen violence could also be more susceptible.
You're right that he does need opportunity to talk about it, and, yes, it's hard to know what to say. Here are some openers:
* "I've been thinking about the Marathon bombing....."
* "Today/yesterday was the anniversary of the bombing...."
* "What do you think about having a moment of silence at dinner tonight, in memory of the victims....."
The goal is to let him know you are open and able to talk about it. You'll notice I didn't end the sentences. You don't have to. The point is to provide the space and opportunity. And by space, I mean: a long pause is OK. After a silence in which he says nothing, you might say simply, "If you feel like talking about it, it's OK. I do, too...." Some children will come back and talk about it in three hours, as if no time passed.
Since your son is sharing specific anxiety about potential bombings, address that head-on. Tell him about how carefully the police and Boston leaders are planning extra security for this year's Marathon. Talk about security precautions airlines take, and what the national government is doing to keep us safe. Talk about what a good job the police do in your town; call the public safety officer and ask for some specifics you can point to. Seriously. It is a parent's job to convey a sense of safety even if it's an effort for you.
Meanwhile, don't limit this to your oldest just because you know he's concerned.
This may not be on your younger children's radar screen, but since it's on their brother's, it possible they are aware of it, too, or just aware that he's upset about something. Ask them, "Have you heard about the Marathon anniversary?" (Use whatever key words you think they will recognize.)
If they say no, tell them, "Well, people are talking about it and you might have some questions. If you do, it's OK to ask me." If they say yes, they have heard, the best response is, "Tell me what you know." That way, you are responding directly to what's on their minds, not to what you think they think.