Once again a terrorist attack has necessitated the need for parents to once more consider how to approach this subject with their children – or even if they should.
How to talk to your children about terrorism
There are many parents who feel they don’t want to talk about these events with their children; they want to protect their children’s childhood and ensure it isn’t tainted by such acts of horror as Barcelona, London, Manchester, Paris and many others. Conversely, other parents want to be open and explain what happened so their children are able to share their thoughts and feelings. So, where is balance and what can parents do?
SIMPLE TRUTH IS…
The simple truth is that protecting children from finding out about these acts is virtually impossible. Sadly, we live in a time where parents need to have the tools to talk about these challenging and difficult situations with their children. Between playground talk, their imagination running wild with snippets they have heard, social media, background news and TV, time spent on mobile devices, adult conversation at school, out and about or even at home, it is likely that children will have heard that something has happened, even if they are not sure what.
This weekend is a good time for parents to talk with their children, at an age appropriate level, about the recent attacks. It is an opportunity to keep them safe from mis-information and allow them to share any feelings they may have.
Find out what they know – demystify the situation
Casually ask your children how their week at school was, if there was any special news or maybe an event that happened. It is very important to find out what they already know as it is an opportunity to demystify the situation, and set the record straight. Facts will take away any confusion and give children the opportunity to make sense of something that might be on their mind. Let the information that they already have steer the conversation; go with what they know and keep the message very simple:
“You might have heard that something really sad happened in England. I was just wondering what, if anything you had heard about it.” Your message is that: “Yes something very sad did happen. The police are on it and finding the people who did this. It is very sad.”
If you don’t want to open that can of worms, just ask about their week and if they had heard anything interesting or a bit different to usual, and see where it goes from there.
By opening up the lines of communication, you can then control and demystify the situation. You are demonstrating to your kids that it’s OK to talk about things that are on their mind and that talking about it can make them feel better.
Your main goal in talking to them about it is that they leave the conversation feeling secure about the situation. Especially for children aged between 7 – 11 years they don’t need too much information or to go into the nitty gritty.
Talk about it more than once – and keep it simple
Give permission to your children to talk about it again if they need to; maybe they have further questions, want clarification, or even just to be reassured that it’s OK to share their feelings. If you are seen to answer with compassion and confidence, this is the message they will take away. If they want to talk, ask open-ended questions beginning with “what”. For example: “You seem a little distracted, what’s on your mind?” Always keep your message clear and simple at an age appropriate level. You know your children so trust your instinct.
Allow them to express their feelings – and validate their emotions
Children can be very sensitive and they pick up on changes in behaviour and routine very quickly. They also look to their parents to identify how they should feel about something. If you are very sad or anxious, they will be too – they copy how you feel. Allow them to talk about how they feel – and validate how they feel. If they share that they are scared, say you were a bit scared too but now you feel safe although you are sad it happened. Do not dismiss their worries or fears, as this does not stop them feeling them – it will only serve for them to bottle it up and not share how they feel. Dismissing feelings does not diminish them. If they see that expressing their feelings makes you sad or angry, they will want to protect you and so not share their own feelings.
Remind them they are safe
Some children do take these events personally – “Why are bad people attacking us?” By using the word “us” they are personalising it – that terrorists want to attack them and their family. Explain to them that there are a very small number of people who behave this way and that many, many more people do not. These people are a minority. Say, “Yes, there a few bad people who do this because they are very angry about lots of things. But it is never OK to hurt other people.” Identify all the good people that surround them and the ways in which they are safe – seat-belts, police, alarms, security etc. Remind them of all the people who protect them and keep them safe. Validate a feeling of safety.
Be realistic and age appropriate
Stick the facts for the younger ones – and keep information factual yet age appropriate. Young children don’t need to know about injuries and extremism, so keep it appropriate. Your message is always one of reassurance yet acknowledging these terrible things do happen sometimes.
As children enter their teens, they might well want to engage in the issues of terrorism, extremism, politics, racism and ethics. These are all very complex issues, so be open about their complexity and see it as an opportunity to talk to them about their values. You may want to research things together.
Model good coping skills
Acknowledging your feelings, talking openly about it, being realistic are all good coping skills. Keep your routines the same and don’t immediately stop conversations when children walk into the room will reinforce that yes, something very sad happened, but that we love each other and we are stronger together, and that togetherness prevails. Children will copy your reactions so model the values you want them to have and these will help you, and them, cope with these very difficult situations.
7. Empower them.
Some children want to DO something, so talk about what it is they would like to do – do they want to write a letter or even donate some of their pocket money to help people who were hurt? Talk about what it is they need to do to feel better and support their need for action. Perhaps this is what they need to do to bring closure and give their support to the many good people out there – and a way to show them not to give into the fear, but cast light where we all can, every day.
If you’d like support in talking about this issue with your children, please get in touch. I am happy to provide complementary support to families around having these discussions with their children.