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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.

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In Boston, schools and partnering mental-health professionals have been working during students’ vacation week to prepare for schools to restart Monday. Trained crisis counselors have already been on hand to assist schools more directly affected by the marathon bombing, says Andria Amador, assistant director of behavioral health services, including the Neighborhood House Charter School, where people are mourning the death of third-grader Martin Richard.

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All Boston schools will have extra support personnel in place Monday “to assist teachers in having conversations with the kids at the developmentally appropriate level,” Ms. Amador says.

The emphasis is on helping students feel safe and resilient, she says. If a student was more directly traumatized, perhaps by witnessing the explosion, he or she will be invited to talk about it privately with a counselor, because “you don’t want that trauma to be shared with other kids,” she says.

Anywhere in the country, children could be in need of extra reassurance. One mother from New York shared with Gaffney that her first-grader, who doesn’t usually watch the news, suddenly became concerned about his upcoming communion because he saw a photo of Martin wearing his communion suit and now associates it with danger (a response that’s not uncommon for his age). 

For some children and teens, the combination of the bombings, the ricin letters, and the Texas fertilizer plant explosion may lead to confusion and questions about whether such events are connected.

On Thursday, that was on the minds of some of Reba Petraitis’s history students at the Kent Place School for girls in Summit, N.J. “One girl asked, ‘Why are these things happening – so quick, so soon, so many?’ ” she says.

Ms. Petraitis helped sort out the rumors, but she didn’t have all the answers. At the time, she had seen only brief reports of the fertilizer plant explosion, which has still not been fully explained but appears to have been accidental.

Her 12th-grade, year-long contemporary history class is based on the For Action Initiative curriculum and explores terrorism from a wide range of perspectives. On Tuesday, students discussed whether the marathon bombing fit the definition of terrorism that they had come up with as a class after studying definitions from around the world. They decided they didn’t have enough information: Did the bomber or bombers have a political agenda, or was the individual or individuals simply mentally unstable, for instance?

The discussion continued this week even after President Obama labeled it terrorism, with the class leaning in that direction but still not sure, she says.

The paradox about safety is that when people see armed guards or bomb-sniffing dogs, it may remind them of frightening events such as 9/11 or the marathon bombing, Gaffney says. But both adults and kids alike, she says, can learn to tell themselves that “the reason I feel anxious is because this reminds me of that other time, but I am safe now; these people are here to protect me.”

Resources for talking with children and teens:


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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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