A Year Later: Dealing with the Fears of Your Children After a Disaster

Boston Strong ribbonAs the one-year anniversary of the 2013 Boston Marathon tragedy approaches, the heightened public focus and media attention on the event may cause  distress in children and result in stressful reactions.

Knowing the signs of stress, how to ease stress, and when to ask for help is important. 

Children’s Reactions to Disaster Events

Disasters may cause strong feelings in children that are both immediate and longer lasting. When children experience a trauma, watch it on TV, or overhear others discussing it, they can feel scared, confused, or anxious, all of which are normal.

It’s important to watch out for warning signs that may indicate your child needs professional help. Signs of distress may include:

  • Crying for no reason
  • Withdrawing from people
  • Not wanting to engage in regular activities
  • Becoming aggressive for no reason
  • Fear of going to school
  • Difficulty paying attention/listening
  • Drop in grades/doing poorly in school
  • Worrying all the time about loved ones (family, friends, teachers, pets)
  • Worrying that the event will happen again
  • Excessive weight gain or loss
  • Engaging in risky behaviors, such as using alcohol or drugs

How to Ease Children’s Stress

Media coverage of the anniversary of the 2013 Boston Marathon tragedy may be traumatic for children.

Discussion at school or in your home about what happened on last year’s Marathon Monday may also be upsetting for children. Be prepared to turn the TV and/or radio off when news about the marathon is being broadcast, and limit your discussion about the marathon when children are present.

It is also important for children to know they can talk about their feelings and experiences and that the adults who care for them will provide comfort and keep them safe. If you are a parent or caregiver, some guidelines to follow include: 

  • Turn off the TV and Radio. In the course of a day, TV stations show the same footage dozens of times. A child may experience each replay as a fresh source of terror. Even if the child seems busy, the background repetition has an effect. When your child does watch or listen to a media report, turn it off at the end and ask what they saw or heard. Make it a chance to talk.
  • Listen to what your child says about her or his feelings. Watch for signs of feelings they do not express. Your child may become more withdrawn or more agitated. Sleep disturbance is a common reaction. Your child may also become fearful of new situations or things they have not feared in the past. Don’t tell them their feelings are wrong. Do tell them that even though a bad thing happened, you are there to keep them safe. Let them know that things will be okay.
  • Even if your older children don’t bring up the marathon anniversary, ask if they’ve heard about it and what they are feeling. Given access to media, all but the youngest children are likely to know something. Not talking may imply that you are too scared to talk, making what happened seem even more frightening to your children.
  • Reassure your children about the safety of families and friends. You may want to name the people a child could worry about, so they know that even if they do not see grandma or a cousin or a neighbor at the moment, those people have not been harmed.
  • Gently correct wrong information your children may have picked up. No need for long talks about what happened or why, but do not let the child hold on to wrong information that may make things seem worse than they really are. A child may not be able to tell fact from opinion. When there are unanswered questions, it is fine to say there are some things no one knows yet.
  • Offer your child opportunities to help others. One effect of disaster is a feeling of helplessness. Children (and adults) can regain a sense of effectiveness by donating, joining a community event to remember or support those who were directly harmed, or helping in some other way.
  • And finally, be aware of your own feelings. Children pick up on parents’ feelings and behaviors, so maintain everyday routines, and find time to talk to other adults about your own concerns.

When to Seek Help 

If your child continues to have stress over the disaster event and it is interfering with their routine, daily life and/or school life, you may wish to seek professional assistance for them.

Where to Call for Help in Boston and Beyond

If you need help finding a counselor or a mental health clinician in Boston for your child, a family member, or yourself, call the Mayor’s Health Line at 617-534-5050 or Toll-Free at 1-800-847-0710.

The Massachusetts Office of Victim Assistance, MOVA, is working with service providers throughout Massachusetts and the rest of the country to try to ensure that those who were affected by the bombings receive needed support and services on their paths to recovery and healing. To find out more about available services from MOVA, please call 617-586-1340, send an email to mova@state.ma.us, or visit www.mass.gov/mova/boston-marathon/.

SAMHSA maintains a Disaster Distress Hotline, which can be accessed 24/7 toll-free at 1-800-985-5990 or by texting the words TalkWithUs to 66746. The Hotline is free and confidential, and provides immediate assistance in the form of information, support, and counseling to those who contact them. To find more information online, please visit www.samhsa.gov.

Massachusetts 211, which can be reached by dialing 211 within the Commonwealth or by going online at mass211.org, is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by specialists who can provide information and resources to individuals seeking behavioral health referrals.

The American Red Cross provides Disaster Mental Health services during and after disaster incidents. These services are available to you by calling 1-800-564-1234, a hotline that is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or by contacting your local Red Cross Chapter. Contact information for your local chapter is available on the American Red Cross website

Source: Boston Public Health Commission; adapted from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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