In the wake of a terrorist attack, parents can feel very de-skilled and helpless. While trying to manage your own feelings, you also have to act as moderator, expert and often a therapist for your own vulnerable and scared children. Here are some helpful strategies to assist parents with talking to their children in a way that is valuable and comforting.
1. Assume that they have some information
Parents often think that if they leave the television/radio off, children are protected from hearing about terrorism. However, children are information sponges. They hear people talking at school or in the shops. They get snippets of stories and draw their own conclusions.
It is best that your children hear information from you. Start by asking if they have heard about the attack. If they have, ask what they think they know and direct the conversation from there. If they haven’t, even better. This is an opportunity for you to be their source of information. Open the discussion and facilitate their questions.
2. Use age appropriate language to discuss the events
Young children do not need to understand the political complexities of a situation. Likewise, older children should not be treated as infants. Judge your words based on the age, temperament and maturity of your child. Make sure that all of their questions are answered to the best of your ability. If you don’t know the answer, that’s ok. Let your child know that you are also learning. Bring attention back to the facts that you do know. Help them find safety in knowing that the police will use the facts to keep us safe.
3. Validate Their Feelings. Then Focus on Safety
As with adults, the scariest thing for a child is to feel unsafe. The goal of a terrorist is to make the population feel unsafe to the point that they alter their way of life. Acknowledge your child’s fears. Accept them. Don’t feel the need to dismiss or discount. Telling a child, “Don’t worry about it.” It is the same as me telling you to not think of a purple elephant. You’re thinking about the elephant now. All it does is put a thought into their mind. Let the fears and worries come out. The most powerful thing a parent can give a child is a cuddle with validation.
After all fears have been validated, brainstorm together all of the reasons they are safe. Making your child a part of this process will be more powerful than spoon feeding them what you think will make them safe. For example, you may think that distance from the attack will make them safe. Your child may instead say that their dog will bark at anyone trying to attack. Both are relevant, however, a child’s own words resonate stronger to build security.
4. Monitor Media and Yourself
We live in an age of 24-hour news coverage. It can be tempting to have the television on so that you can be informed of updates. However, this does you and your children little good. False information can get reported as fact in attempts to get the scoop on a news story. With constant focus, the mind begins to feel as though there is little else happening in the world. This breeds fears and feelings of insecurity. Children are especially susceptible to being entranced by screens. Limiting the amount of control, the media has on your children starts with the amount it is allowed to be on in your home.
It is also important to monitor our own reactions and focus. When talking to your partner, friends and family, make sure you are aware of what the children are exposed to. Older children and teenagers may wish to take part in these discussions. This can be beneficial if your child is mature enough to take part. Younger children may be lurking and listening. Make sure what is said around them gels with what is said to them. Save more intense conversations for when little ones are not around.
5. Focus On the Helpers
Some of the greatest qualities of humanity are displayed during and in the aftermath of a crisis. Tell stories about the police who protected the people. Talk about the Emergency Services that were there to take care of the injured and the doctors and nurses that helped treat them. Not only does this show your child that victims were cared for, it shows them that should they ever be in danger, there are people trained and available to offer help when needed.
Share stories of everyday people that went out of their way to help their fellow man. Our culture focuses so much on the tragedy that we forget to remember the heroes. Teach your children that these are the qualities we should value. It will help them develop these as values in themselves. Use this tragedy as a moment for learning. You are your child’s first and most important teacher.