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Boston Marathon bombings: tips for calming kids' fears after tragedies

Everyone from parents to teachers to mental-health professionals can have a role to play in helping kids after the Boston Marathon bombings, although what’s appropriate can depend on a child’s age.

By Staff writer / April 18, 2013

Two young boys leave messages with chalk on a sidewalk near the finish line of Monday's Boston Marathon bombings, Thursday in Boston.

Matt Rourke/AP


There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to talking with children about the deadly explosions that have been saturating the news this week – first bombs at the Boston Marathon, then an apparent accident at a fertilizer plant in Texas.

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But there is plenty of expert advice about how adults can tailor their responses according to the signs of anxiety that children may show or the difficult questions they may ask.

“All kids want to know that they are safe ... [and] kids need hope for the future,” says Gene Beresin, director of Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Mental Health and Media and a Harvard psychiatry professor. “Teachers, parents, clergy, coaches, guidance counselors: Everybody has a role to play here.”

What’s appropriate largely depends on the child’s age.

Preschoolers should be shielded, especially from television images of explosions – since they may perceive that new explosions are happening each time they see images of the same event, Dr. Beresin and others say. Parents should carry on the routine as much as possible for young children, while perhaps offering more cuddles and comfort if a child seems to be picking up on adults feeling worried.

For young school-age children who are aware that something bad has happened, adults can speak in simple language about good people outnumbering bad people – and how much the police and other officials are “working 24 hours a day ... trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” suggests Donna Gaffney, executive director of the For Action Initiative, which sprang up to offer free age-appropriate lesson plans in the years following the 9/11 attacks.

A 9/11 widow helped create the lesson plans after her own children had a middle-school teacher who pointed out one page in a textbook about the attacks when the anniversary rolled around, but seemed too uncomfortable to talk about it with her students, Ms. Gaffney says.

For older children and teens, “ask them what they are worried about,” and rather than try to talk them out of negative feelings such as sadness or fear, talk through “how you manage them, how you cope,” says David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

Older kids may ask “more sophisticated questions and want to know your take on things," Beresin says. "You can even watch the news with older teens and say, ‘What do you make of this?’ ” Kids may be nervous about attending a sporting event, or they may hear that bags are being searched at certain locations and assume that means a threat is there, and adults can help calm such fears once they’ve heard what’s really on their minds, he says.

But don’t be surprised, he adds, if they talk more while engaged in an activity: Sometimes that’s more comfortable than a talk sitting down face to face.

Gaffney sometimes hears school administrators say they’re not in the mental-health business, “but in fact teachers are first responders” when communities are affected by terrorism, so “we have to give them support and the language,” she says.


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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

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