In the wake of another tragedy in the form of two bombs that exploded along the route of the Boston Marathon, parents and education experts are left wondering how to help children understand what happened and to help them grieve in an age-appropriate ways. As they did after the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the National Association of School Psychologists released a tip sheet really providing guidance for parents on how to talk to their kids about terrorism.
Says the NASP:
Acts of violence that hurt innocent people are frightening and upsetting. Children and youth will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react. Parents and school personnel can help children cope first and foremost by establishing a sense of safety and security. As horrible as these events are, children need to know that acts of terrorism are extremely rare in the United States. As information becomes available, adults can continue to help children work through their emotions and help them to learn how to cope with other life challenges.
It's important to remember that whatever parents and teacher say, it is their actions that communicate the most. Therefore, it's vital to model outward calm and control for children even if you're not feeling that calm and control yourself. Children's emotional responses will mirror those of their parents and teachers, so keeping a lid on anxiety is vital.
It is also important to reassure the children that whatever happened before, they are currently safe as are the many adult and loved ones in their lives. Focus should also be placed on the bravery of volunteers and emergency response workers who are working to heal the sick and reunite families as quickly as possible.
Remind them that trustworthy people are in charge. Explain that emergency workers, police,
firefighters, doctors, and the government are helping people who are hurt and are working to
ensure that no further tragedies like this occur.
Let children know that it is okay to feel upset. Explain that all feelings are okay when a
tragedy like this occurs. While you do not want to force children to do so, let children talk about
their feelings and help put them into perspective. Even anger is okay, but children may need help
and patience from adults to assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.
Tell children the truth. Don't try to pretend the event has not occurred or that it is not serious.
Children are smart. They will be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what is
happening. At the same time, however, don't offer unasked for details. Let children's questions be
The NASP advises adults in charge to stick to the facts when explaining the situation to the kids – but that is advice that could just as easily apply to the media. While most outlets took into account the chaotic conditions surrounding the incident, they mainly stuck with information that was confirmed either by eyewitnesses or law enforcement officials. Not every outlet followed the same set of standards. The most egregious example came from the New York Post who claimed that the number of dead was a dozen or more, even hours after law enforcement officials said that only three people died as the result of the bombs going off.
Be careful not to stereotype people that might be associated with the violence. Children can easily generalize negative statements and develop prejudice. Talk about tolerance and justice versus vengeance. Stop any bullying or teasing immediately.