Due to recent tragedies, advice on talking to children about terror and sadness has been in high demand. Parents and guardians may find it difficult to comprehend the situations themselves, much less talk about it with their kids. The discussion is important, though, especially for older kids who will start to see things on social media and in the news. Even younger children may wander into the room when the news is on or overhear things and have questions.
With that in mind, we have compiled seven tips from several articles and resources that may help you navigate these difficult conversations.
1. Keep age in mind.
Many articles we came across split their tips into sections by age. A discussion with an elementary student will be notably different from one with a high school student; young children may need to express themselves through play or art instead of talking. In the end, you know your child and what they are ready for best.
2. Ask questions.
Many experts suggest asking your children what they already know, if anything. With younger children, this can help you determine if you need to have the conversation at all. For older children, it provides an opportunity for them to ask questions back and express their feelings.
3. Create a safe space.
The best way to make them feel safe during these situations is to support them — take their feelings and fears seriously instead of dismissing them. That said, it never hurts to remind kids you love them and give them an extra hug.
4. Monitor media consumption.
Another part of creating a safe space can be monitoring what your kids are seeing. You may not be able to completely shut down the media machine for older kids, but it is okay to keep young ones away from the disturbing images often on the news. Make sure to redirect them calmly. Panicking and other dramatic reactions can create more anxiety and more of an impression.
5. Be honest and accurate.
Children often know if you are not telling the full truth, even if it is to protect them. This can send the message that they should be afraid. To reassure them, be direct, but again — keep age in mind. Elementary-aged kids may not need to know every detail, while older students can use help sorting through the information they are finding.
6. Correct misconceptions.
Keep your kids grounded in reality. Do not exaggerate or blow things out of proportion, and don’t let them do it either. It can also be a teachable moment. If they are beginning to conflate terrorists with larger groups, have a calm talk about prejudice and diversity.
7. Lead by example.
Focus on hope and peace. Remind them that most of the people in the world are good. Share your feelings with them as well. Remind them to “look for the helpers,” in the words of Mr. Rogers. If you want, help them take action by donating or volunteering their time. Let your kids know it is okay to feel upset, but also empower them to make the world better.
Articles on this topic have become common in recent weeks, as more tragedies are brought into the public eye, but these tips can apply to any sad or scary event in your child’s life. Here are the resources we referenced for the tips above:
TIME: How to Talk to Your Kids About the Attacks in Paris
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Talking to Children About Terrorism and War
The Washington Post: When terror strikes, here’s what you should tell children
The Huffington Post UK: How To Talk To Children About Terrorism
FOX News: Paris Terror Attacks: Talking to children about terrorism
911 Memorial: Talking to Your Children About 9/11
Savvy Psychologist (Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.) from QuickandDirtyTips.com: How to Talk to Kids About Terrorism and Violence
Here are some other articles that might be valuable, but are more personal or based on the authors’ experiences and opinions:
- The New York Times: How to Talk to Children About Terrorism (opinion)
- This op-ed was written by Pamela Druckerman, author of “Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.” She and her family live six minutes away from Le Bataclan, a major site in the Paris terror attacks. It also includes a video featuring “Le Petit Quotidien,” a French children’s newspaper that “refuses to sugarcoat the horror of the Paris attacks.”
- The Daily Beast: How to Talk to Your Kids About ISIS (essay)
- An older article, closer to the date of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, this piece covers the author’s personal experience, but includes strong examples of options, from what the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. does with her children to explaining terror to kids with Batman’s help.
- The Telegraph: Paris attacks: How to explain the horror to children (column)
- This column includes advice from Gemma Allen, a senior bereavement counsellor from Britain’s leading charity for bereaved children, who writes about her personal experience discussing the attacks with her children.
- The Guardian: How to talk to your children about the Paris attacks (opinion)
- This opinion piece is filled with do’s and don’ts for talking about terror with children. It features examples from the BBC, French newspapers, and the “Daily Beast” article above.