How To Talk To Kids About Terrorism
Right after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks happened in 2008, a 10-year-old client told me he was scared to enter any restaurant, as terrorists could strike again. When I asked, his parents explained that while he hadn’t been at any of the sites struck by the gunmen, he had read the newspaper and seen images of the violence on television, and they didn’t know how to talk to kids about terrorism. Those days were scary times; adults as well as children were afraid — and not only those in Mumbai; research shows that witnessing violence vicariously can leave both children and adults feeling helpless, unsafe, and anxious about their future.
Seven years later, in the wake of 13 November terrorist attacks in Paris, I’m reminded of the value of talking and listening to our children as they are exposed to terrorism through the Internet, television or conversations. I was glad to see French newspapers making a point to answer children’s questions about the attacks and to address their fears and other overwhelming emotions. But we can’t always rely on newspapers to take this on. It is our role, as parents, to put the world into context for our children, even when we don’t understand it ourselves.
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Parents often feel the least they can do is protect and insulate their kids from news about terrorism, violence and crime. I endorse this view to an extent: Children should be kept away from scenes of violence on television and the Internet. But we live in a turbulent world, and we can’t always control whether our kids learn of violent events. We can, however, control how we talk about these events with them.
Stay calm. Jonathan Comer and Philip Kendall, in their empirical research, have designed a programme called Coping and Media Literacy, which can help parents talk to youngsters about attacks like those in Paris or Mumbai. Their approach focuses on modelling, that is, controlling personal anxiety and communicating news in the way you want your child to receive it. They found when parents (1) convey the news with a sense of calm and security, (2) voice appreciation every time children use a positive coping statement, that is, an optimistic statement such as, “The police will protect us,” (3) point out how families and communities support each other during or in the aftermath, and (4) teach children how much news to watch and how investigative journalism works, children were less anxious than those whose parents used a different approach.
Find out how much they know. With preschoolers and very young children, it is important to listen to them to understand what they may have heard or already know. I was absolutely shocked when my 6-year-old, who is not exposed to any news on the television at home, told me her principal had spoken about the Paris attacks in the school assembly. Children may hear varied versions in the school bus or at recess breaks, from teachers or from older children. Clarifying these stories and providing accurate answers can help allay fears.
Allow them to ask questions and share their feelings. Children need to be able to talk about their feelings in psychologically safe places. Make your home an environment where children can be honest about their feelings. When we tell children, “Don’t be scared or frightened,” we are telling them what they are experiencing is wrong. Instead, tell them it is normal to feel scared and that sometimes even you feel the same way. With older children and teenagers, it is important to let them ask questions. Then, reinforce how, as a community or family, you can work together to find inner strength or resilience. Consider directing children and teens toward painting or writing, through which they can channel emotions. Reading books that reflect respect for religious tolerance and diversity can also help.
Focus on safety, not explanations. Children’s ideas about belonging, personal safety and freedom are very deeply impacted when they can’t make sense of acts of terrorism. More than reasons or explanations, they need to feel protected. Tell them how governments and various organizations work hand-in-hand to ensure the safety of their citizens and how this cooperation has averted crisis many times before. Children need to grow up believing in the power of law, rather than the power of force. Teach the child to trust the community at large has healthy mechanisms to prevent and address serious issues.
Highlight hope and community. I find it very useful to talk to children about hope, that is, our belief in goodness in the world. Hope becomes the basis of how our children will see, believe and perceive the world. Showing them examples of how we, as a community, help others heal and cope in positive ways reinforces the concept. A video that went viral after the Paris attacks is a very good example: In it, a father attempting to explain terrorism to his young son teaches him to trust the world and equips him with compassion and empathy. It is a lovely moment when he says, “Look, everyone is putting flowers. It is to fight against guns.”
Keep listening to and talking with them. Sesame Workshop, an R&D non-profit for educational programming, found out that children between 6 to 11 years worry more about everyday problems than they worry about threats of war and terrorism. So while we should listen to and discuss their concerns about terrorism, we should also have the same openness to topics like bullying and other, more mundane violence, which may upset kids even more. Keep your channels of communication with your children open.
We do not have control over the terror and crime in this world. But we can fill our children’s hearts with the compassion, empathy, resilience and optimism to face it. As Martin Seligman says, “Optimism is invaluable for meaningful life. With a firm belief in the positive future, you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are.”
As a parent, you’re in the best position to set the right emotional tone. You know your child and you know the right way to initiate a dialogue, and more importantly, you know how you can encourage your kids to express their true feelings. As an adult, you need to stay calm as you explain the event. Kids pick up cues from you so if you act terrified or anxious, they will be anxious too.