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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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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