Helping Parents Talk To and Calm Their Children After Boston’s Tragedy: Teleclass Re-cap

For those of you who missed this important teleclass, facilitated by Dr. Kate Roberts, here is a link to the taped class and discussion.

As parents, we struggle with how to communicate with our children about the tragic events in Boston and best support them during this difficult time. We wanted to make sure that you, as parents, have the resources you need to both cope and move forward.

During the teleclass, Dr. Kate provided tangible tips on how parents can best support children in times of crisis:

Q: Dr. Kate, we hear so much about parents’ need to address their own emotions before they can respond to their children’s emotions. What are some ways that parents can stay calm and get centered during a time of high emotions?

A: Take care of yourselves, Parents. You are the number one resource for your children and therefore you need to be centered, despite the craziness of the world around you.
Process your feelings with other adults and allow your time with your children to be focused on taking care of them right now.

Q: Many of you today have children that are preschool age or younger.  We hear so much about limiting access and exposure to TV images and sensationalism regarding the Boston events – what are your thoughts  about how important that is when  a family has young children? 

A: TV, social media and “suggestible” discussions are all toxic to children at a time of high stress and trauma. For example, a friend’s daughter Alli was not sleeping well due to not only the images, but also adult’s reactions to them. Children respond to body language and pick up and internalize non-verbal cures. Children do not take in graphic information or sensationalist pictures like parents do. They are impressionable and will have difficulty managing the images in their minds after they have seen them.

Q: Dr. Kate can you talk about the idea that when a crisis hits us we move into the “flight or fight” mode? What does this really mean to us as parents?

A: As parents we have to be aware that our reaction can become our children’s reactions to events if we are not careful, children can be anxious about something and fear something and not ever tell you why, they are just copying what their parent does. Flight refers to the body’s automatic reaction to flee in the face of fear and fight refers to the idea that we want to fight the threat and we may express anger as a results instead of or in addition to fear, with way the emotions are strong and very present on the surface for children to experience, internalize and demonstrate themselves. The calmer, more centered you as a parent can be, the easier it will be get your child out of this mode and back to baseline.

Q: Dr. Kate, how do we address our children’s emotions?

A: It’s a balance between being overly emotional and indulging irrational fears (which leads to increased anxiety-anxiety), versus validating and acknowledging them. Listen, be patient, and tolerate children’s irrational thoughts and fears, without indulging them “I know it’s scary and it feels like it’s going to be us next…. and it’s not “.  Children’s anxiety is irrational, so try not to address it rationally. Talk about how life will continue to happen the way you plan it every day.

Q: How parents should respond when their child asks why this happened and when they question if it happen because people were bad or people deserved it?

A: Stay away from discussion or analysis about why things happened. Focus more on how you and your children can do things to make the world a better place. We can’t explain the events that transpire in life and we should not pretend to be able with our children. A spiritual or religious presence can sometimes guide these types of questions, however, even when families have that benefit; it’s not enough to provide a rational reason for such irrational, horrific events.

Q: Some people say giving back helps families heal in a time of crisis. How can parents do this with young children?

A: It’s true that you may not be able to help the victims of Boston’s event directly, but you can help sick people at your local hospital or help those in need in other ways that show the world is a positive, good place. Encouraging your children to help others allows them to feel empowered that they can “do” something.

Q: How will parents know if their child is affected by the events in an atypical way? For example, more than a typical child who may initially demonstrate some fears, but quickly demonstrates resilience with parental support.

A: Parents should watch for changes in your children’s behavior. Signs of  irritability, low tolerance, fussiness, moodiness, nightmares, sleep and eating disturbances can indicate that your children is the “fright mode” or impacted more than what is typical. Watch for increases in these behaviors during times of more stress such as transitions, unfamiliar setting, and unfamiliar people, anything new and different. Take these signs seriously and attempt to address them by offering more support through extra time together, and by offering more reassurance.  If that does not help calm the symptoms, pursue outside consultation with your pediatrician.

Q: What is the fastest way for families to move on from such local and national tragedies without ignoring their impact?

A: Help children remain in their routines and/or return them to routine as soon as possible. Getting them to engage fully in their busy, active daily lives will distract them away from the tragedy and remind them of what is good in their own lives.

Q: How scared should parents be that something like exposure to these events on TV or being in an environment where people are highly emotional in reaction to the events, will severely impacts their children?

A: Parents should know and believe that everyone, even children and teens, are resilient and do over come stress in the aftermath of a crisis to return to baseline. It is normal for kids to feel upset, sad, confused or afraid after something bad happens; let your child know its okay to have these feelings and that they pass. If kids can’t get back to baseline or show difficulty adjusting to their routine and normal life, seek professional help.

Dr. Kate Roberts is a child psychologist and parenting coach with over 25 years of experience. Based in Hamilton and Salem, she is a well-known expert in the field of parenting and child psychology, and has published a number of articles in professional journals and writes a bi-weekly parenting column in the Salem News; Dr. Kate’s Parent Rap. Dr. Kate’s unique coaching practice “helps parents, help their children”. Her New Reality Parenting, is a coaching model that offers practical, targeted strategies that guide parents through the unexpected glitches of today’s ultra crazed, fast paced everyday life. Her focused solutions take the stress out of overscheduled and bring a smoothness to even the bumpiest transitions. Contact her via email at [email protected] or phone 978-884-1213 .Visit, Facebook or Twitter.

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