04/24/2013 05:28 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

Parent Alert: Danger of Kids Heroizing the Alleged Boston Bomber Brothers


As countless kids were glued to 24-hour coverage of the Tsarnaev brothers in a massive manhunt the likes of which has not been seen since the Zero Dark Thirty movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden or the O.J. Simpson car chase, a serious danger emerged for families.

Can kids turn terrorists into anti-heroes?

Comic books, computer games and toys are rife with heroes and villains -- "good" and "evil" characters. But the real-life story of the accused Boston bombing brothers has unleashed potential dangers for young children who may confuse fantasy with this cruel reality, and for troubled teens who may become copy cats or develop an unhealthy fascination with the deadly duo.

Consider the power displayed by the Tsarnaev brothers fleeing the crime scene, catapulting a Metropolis into lockdown, miraculously escaping on foot from police and causing mass chaos, surpassing the antics of the Joker that inspired young mass murderer James Holmes.

In his address to the nation after the Boston marathon bombing, President Obama asked, "Why did young men who grew up and studied here, resort to such violence?"

Many parents similarly wonder, and worry.

Answers from a psychological perspective provide important clues and advice to prevent kids from turning the suspected Bomber Brothers into anti-heroes -- figures who are not moral, good or noble, but perceived as having superpowers.

My advice to parents:

  • Use this horror as a "teachable moment" to talk to kids about their thoughts and feelings about this event, and about issues like violence, managing anger and alienation, and what makes a real hero.

  • Watch for signs of prejudice. Of course, rivalry between school sports teams (or the Yankees and the Red Sox) is normal, but expressions of hatred towards some group, country or ethnicity is a warning signal. A vicious attitude of "us" against "them" is a root to violence against others perceived as opposite to one's own affiliation.
  • Be alert to alienation. Criminals are often loners, as in the case of alleged bomber Tamerlan, whom associates say dropped out of contact.

  • Be vigilant about victimization. Feelings of impotence and powerlessness can fuel compensatory actions to dominate others lower down the power chain. Kids who are bullied surely suffer, but can potentially bully others, like the classic phenomenon of the downtrodden kicking the dog. The risk of being a perpetrator has been positively correlated to reported victim experiences. [1] Get help for youth being persecuted by others.

  • Pay attention to aggression. Besides the previous FBI alert, domestic battery charges had been filed against Tamerlan Tsarnaev and friends knew his wife was terrified of him. Get professional help for youth with anger management problems. Notice whether behaviors, like choices of one-on-one contact sports (as the older brother's boxing and the younger brother's wrestling) have healthy motives or reflect extreme aggression and dangerous dominance.

  • Recognize reversals. "Nice" kids can turn, mild-mannered people can snap, criminals can deceive and psychopathic perpetrators can put on the most likeable face, like Ted Bundy and the Times Square bomber. High school schoolmates of 19-year old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev describe him as "friendly and funny," "a very nice person," "a team player" and "easy going," and were shocked at his seeming "180 degree switch in personality." His wrestling coach similarly saw no signs. His father called him his "little angel." His Twitter feeds sound like a normal American teen's following hip-hop. But once reportedly involved in two activities that saved lives -- as a lifeguard and studying medicine -- it seems the boy turned to taking lives. One subtle clue: He was fired from his two-year long lifeguard job this past summer for not showing up for his shifts at the pool.

  • Accept that motives can be masked. According to the psychological defense mechanism of reaction formation, people hide unacceptable impulses in the opposing behavior. [2] Espousing love can conceal hostility, extreme kindness can be a cover-up for cruelty, critics of pornographic material may secretly be aroused and homophobes may harbor homosexual desires. Trained terrorists and psychopathic criminals are expert at appearing as nice neighbors while hiding evil intentions.

  • Monitor behavior, in person and on the Internet. Know with whom your child is associating and where they travel to see whom, and for what reason. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was reported to have a Youtube profile as of August 2012 with a playlist named "Terrorists" and suspiciously visited Russia for six months.

  • Casual comments can betray serious intentions. A schoolmate said that the younger Tsarnaev once said to a friend, "Terrorism when justified is not a bad thing." Also, the older brother, Tamerlan, reportedly said he "cannot understand Americans" -- revealing the alienation I mentioned that sows seeds of the "us" and "them" ideology that can lead to aggression.
  • Acknowledge teen angst. Teens are especially vulnerable when undergoing identity crises, a time of confusing emotions and peer pressure. Even popular kids may secretly feel like outsiders, desperate to fit in, like 19-year old Dzhokhar, who even "Americanized" his name.

  • Discern sibling dynamics. Siblings can have opposite personalities -- as the case seems to be with the Tsarnaev brothers -- with the younger swayed by the older, especially if the latter serves as a parental figure. A shy, or seemingly affable, congenial and socially well-adjusted child can commit uncharacteristic acts directed by an older, dominant sibling. As such, the younger Tsarnaev could have been brainwashed, pressured and controlled by his 7-years older brother, who was witnessed as being manipulative, violent and fanatic.

  • Understand the types of terrorists. In the field of "terrorist psychology" that emerged after Al-Qaeda attacks, psychologists have analyzed the mind of a terrorist. Political psychologist Jerrold Post proposes three types of terrorists: national-separatist, social-revolutionary and religious-extremist. [3] While terrorists might be psychopathic, Post poses the concept of the "sane madmen."

Four types of terrorists are outlined by forensic psychologist Raymond Hamden, a friend whose workshop I attended in Dubai at a conference on Middle East and North Africa Psychology. They include: the psychopathic type who is amoral, manipulative and likely non-suicidal; the retributional type, who feels victimized and seeks revenge; and two ethno-geographic subtypes (political and religious, likely describing Tamerlan) who are controlling ideological martyrs [4] [5].

According to Hamden, there are three types of youth members of terrorist groups: the Fantasy/At-risk Member, fascinated and obsessed with the terrorist group lifestyle and seduced by media images into imitating behavior; the Associate Member who is naïve, inexperienced and desperate for approval, and who starts having difficulties at home and in school; and the Hardcore Member who has proven loyalty to the terrorist group, is usually not involved with school, and may have little or no contact with their biological family and community.

In my view, the younger Tsarnaev brother had psychopathic tendencies, evidenced by his actions after the bombing -- attending college parties, going to the gym and sending tweets ("I'm a stress free type of guy" and "Peace be with you") as if nothing happened. Ted Bundy and many other notorious criminals similarly interspersed horrific crimes with going about a regular life.

  • Take reasonable responsibility. A child's character comes from a combination of "nature-nurture" factors, including genetics, experiences and modeling parents, peers and other important figures in their life. [6] Family dynamics are revealing: the Tsarnaev father's own boxing career, his political leanings and his absence (leaving the U.S.), and their mother's urging of religion as a way to resist girls and drugs, and her behavior and views that reportedly frightened a young woman who had facials from her. [7]

  • Evaluate influences of ethnic and familial background. A Caucasus and Central Asian region specialist offers insight into the boys' motivation as "A psychological portrait of the collective Chechen identity as defined by generations of anger, despair, trauma and an abiding obsession with honor and revenge," whereby possibly a "cruel and chaotic demi-world of pain and violence spread over multiple generations claimed their to-die-for allegiance." [8]

  • Carefully choose names. Children are often purposefully named after relatives and others whom their parents admired with qualities they want their children to embody. Dzhokar was supposedly named after Soviet Air Force Marshal Dudayev, considered controversial and reckless, and the name Tamerlan evokes a Central Asian warlord who terrorized his enemies, burying them alive, trampling them to death and building towers of their skeletons.

  • Heal family rifts. An uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers, ashamed of their actions and pleading them to ask forgiveness, said he had no contact with their father (his brother) or his nephews for years, and the two Tsarnaev sisters reportedly had not seen their brothers in years. Keep communication open among family members, since positive influences can possibly abet disaster.

  • Keep guns and easily accessible weapons of destruction away from children. Do not give them such items as toys; instead, give them gifts related to peace, and games to improve educational and thinking skills.


[1] Glasser, M., Kolvin, I., Campbell, D., Glasser, A., Leitch, I. & Farrelly, S. (2001). Cycle of child sexual abuse: links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator. British Journal of Psychiatry. 179: 482-494.

[2] Valliant, G. E. (1992). Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers. Arlington, Virginia: American Psychiatric Publishing.

[3] Post, J. M. (2008). The Mind of the Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to al-Qaeda. Palgrave Macmillan Publishers.

[4] Hamden, R. H. (2013, April 21) Personal communication.

[5] Hamden, R.H. (n.d.) The Psychology of Terrorists: 4 Types. Accessed at

[6] Loehlin, J.C. & Nichols, R.C. (1976). Heredity, environment & Personality: A Study of 850 Sets of Twins. University of Texas Press.

[7} Accessed at: