Dealing with the Boston Bombing's Aftershocks

Boston Marathon bombing manhunt affected psychological wellbeing of area children

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) The Boston Marathon bombing led to a large-scale manhunt rarely seen in the US. Hundreds of families were required to shelter in place while it continued.

A recent study looked at the way this manhunt and those shelter-in-place requirements might have affected youth living in the area.

The findings revealed that children exposed to the manhunt were actually a little more affected psychologically than those who were at the Marathon itself.

Symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and problems with social interactions were not uncommon among children directly exposed to the manhunt.

"Help children learn coping skills after a traumatic event."

This study, led by Jonathan Comer, PhD, of the Department of Psychology at Florida International University in Miami, looked at the possible effects of the Boston Marathon manhunt on the mental health of children living in the area.

The researchers conducted a survey of 460 parents and/or caretakers living in the Boston area.

The parents reported on their children's experiences during the week of the bombing and then on their child's psychological and social functioning in the six months that followed.

An analysis of the results revealed some significant insights into the ways such a terrorist attack can affect a community.

For example, children who had attended the Boston Marathon itself were six times more likely to experience PTSD than other area youth who didn't attend.

However, the manhunt that followed appeared to have a stronger influence on kids' psychological wellbeing than the bombing, even if kids were present at the bombing.

In other words, those who lived in the area that was shut down during the manhunt appeared more deeply affected by that experience, on average, than those who attended the Marathon.

Children exposed to the manhunt experienced more emotional symptoms, behavior problems, hyperactivity or inattention and social difficulties with peers than children not exposed to the manhunt.

The researchers also learned that one in every five children watched more than three hours of televised coverage of the attack on the day it happened.

Spending that much time watching the coverage was linked to greater PTSD symptoms, behavior problems and overall psychological or social difficulties.

Children who already had strong social skills in interacting with peers or already engaged in positive social behaviors were a little less likely to have been negatively affected by the manhunt.

The researchers concluded that serving children's psychological needs in the wake of such an event requires more than just focusing on those present at the event itself.

Children exposed to the subsequent pursuit of the perpetrators must also be included in any outreach efforts to address mental health concerns.

"Continued research is needed to understand the adjustment of youth after mass traumas and large-scale manhunts in residential communities," the authors wrote.

Tom Seman, MD, a pediatrician at North Shore Pediatrics in Danvers, Mass., has several patients who were at the Boston Marathon at the time of the bombing and said he was not surprised at this study's findings.

"There was a lot of coverage here and there was a lot of anxiety associated with it," he said. "I have children who have autism spectrum disorders who are showing increased anxiety and stress, and I have children with anxiety disorders who are now having severe panic attacks with any kind of noises. Every time we see a backpack on the ground all of us are panicked.

Dr. Seman said that the study demonstrates how powerful the media can be and how hard it can be to see the same details over and over.

"As adults, we choose to continue to watch these events on television and the updates," he said. "Most children, however, are victims of the adults in distress having to watch these events on full over and over again even if they don't have an interest."

He suggested that parents become more aware of when their interest in the news could become detrimental to their children.

"Although children may not seem to be paying attention, their membranes are constantly taking in information from their surroundings and they are constantly hearing us," he said. "They pick up easily on our emotions as well."

This study was published June 2 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders Research Fund, the Barlow Research Fund, the Department of Psychology at Boston University and the National Institutes of Health.

The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
June 2, 2014
Last Updated:
July 1, 2014