Bomber Trial: How Do You Talk To Children About The Death Penalty?

In this courtroom sketch, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty points to defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Tsarnaev was found guilty and now faces the death penalty. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

In this courtroom sketch, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty points to defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Tsarnaev was found guilty and now faces the death penalty. (Jane Flavell Collins/AP)

Killing is the ultimate bad, right? That’s what we teach our children. So how do we talk to them about the very real possibility, splattered across our screens and newspapers, that we may put a young man to death for his crimes?

“I think he should die,” said my 9-year-old child when I raised the question leading the news this week: whether Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be sentenced to death or life in prison. “If he killed [four] people and injured hundreds and ran from it he should have a very serious consequence.”

“Life in prison is worse,” said my older daughter.

The conversation then turned to what kinds of people commit crimes and why, and by the end, my young daughter was not so sure about the death penalty. Needless to say, it’s complicated.

Earlier this month, Tsarnaev, 21, was convicted on all 30 counts against him and was found responsible for the deaths of three spectators at the 2013 marathon as well as the fatal shooting of an MIT police officer.

Today, defense lawyers are making the case for life in prison for Tsarnaev, rather than the death penalty. The public, is seems, is also leaning in that direction: A recent WBUR poll found that only 31 percent of Boston area residents say they support the death penalty for Tsarnaev.

So how do we talk to our kids about all of this?

Shamaila Khan, Ph.D., is director of behavioral health at the Massachusetts Resiliency Center, a program of Boston Medical Center, and has been attending the Tsarnaev trial regularly, providing support for survivors at the courthouse. She was a responder on the day of the marathon in 2013 working with families and individuals brought to BMC. She has also worked closely with families affected by the bombing and its aftermath, including people in Watertown who were impacted by the hunt for the Tsarnaev brothers days after the bombings.

I spoke with Khan about how to help parents talk about these tough issues — life and death, justice and punishment and revenge — with children. Here, edited, is some of our conversation:

RZ: So, as a parent, how do you begin to talk to children about these complex issues?

SK: This is a very controversial topic. It’s hard enough for adults to talk about it, let alone children. Children respond differently based on their developmental level — depending on what age they are and where they are developmentally. But there are three basic things to consider: listening, protecting and connecting.

RZ: OK, can you give some more detail please?

So, first, listen. Ask the children if they’ve heard about this, and what they know. With social media, there’s so much information available and often children know more than parents think. If they have heard about this, listen to what they have to say. Often, our tendency as adults is to start explaining — first let the children tell you what they know. Once you know that, you can figure out how to answer their questions, and find out what they are curious about. If they are expressing opinions at one end of the spectrum [like my daughter], offer them another point of view, maybe something like, ‘Who knows why this person did this?’ and give them more information. Help them to think about it in a more complex way, highlighting the variation on the spectrum. But remember, sometimes not telling the whole truth is important.

Like if a child, say up to 12 years old, asks how exactly does the death penalty get carried out, you might want to explain it in a way that demonstrated how it’s done with the individual experiencing the least amount of pain. You can be kind of vague and abstract. I’ve given examples of a pet that needs to be put to sleep: It happens in a way that doesn’t hurt them. So, a little abstract and not giving all the graphic detail unless asked. You can explain the death penalty by saying, for example, there’s a process in place, and different ways that it can be done. They try to figure out the least painful method, maybe medication or an injection. They used to do worse things but they don’t do that any more. Just keep it simple and abstract.

So you also said “protecting” is important. How does that work in this context?

Children, no matter what you’re talking about, they think about their own self and safety: Where is this person? Can this person get out of prison and hurt me? Is he in the same town where we live? Is he chained up? What kind of person does this and can there be anyone else around to do this to me? So the child’s own sense of safety is triggered. As parents you want to make sure the kids are feeling protected and safe. So just reassuring them is important.

And “connection” — where does that come in?

Connection is about making sure their support system is in place. You make it clear that you are there as a parent or parents, and other people are around, teachers, family members and others. You make sure there are other people and systems in place and say, ‘If you ever want to talk, there are people around to talk to.’ Often children stay curious, and if talking is not what they want, offer them activities that give them other ways to address their feelings: write a letter — What would you say to this person? — write in a journal, create a drawing…

I’ve worked in different disaster settings with children and I was in Pakistan after the school shooting in December. Many children drew pictures about it — it was much easier for them to talk about the drawings and express their feelings and thoughts about their drawings. Sometimes it’s easier to project onto something else rather than your own self.

With regards to the Tsarnaev case, how do you frame the basic moral questions about the death penalty? How can parents address this?

You can talk about the different debates on this topic — some people think this and some people think about it in another way. Try to show them some of the complexities but in as simple a way as possible. The other things to remember with kids are: how they feel, how they think, how they act. So if a child raises the issue of life in prison, you can say, that’s what you think but how do you feel about it and what would you do? What would be a different way of handling it? Shifting between domains like this is important. Optimal functioning entails being healthy emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally. Sometimes people are caught in their emotions and don’t really think things through; sometimes they may be acting out but not recognizing where the feeling is coming from, so you want to make sure their feelings, thoughts and actions are connected. Especially when people are traumatized, they often disassociate, or detach.

All this might take time, I imagine.

Yes, it’s not a linear process. There’s an ebb and flow to it. The psychological impact for people doesn’t always surface immediately, there can be secondary trauma for people who listen to all this graphic material. You need to let them know there are people around to help and answer their questions.

It does take time. And it’s important not to expect that you will explain everything perfectly all at once or that they will understand perfectly. It requires being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

For more information, Khan recommends the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a resource for parents that explains stress in childhood and how it can play out for children of all ages.

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