The images of the horrific events in Paris on Friday night have been splashed over the front covers of all the newspapers and on an almost continuous loop on TV news channels. As parents we have been facing a barrage of questions from our children - scared children - and it is difficult to know how to answer them and to reassure them.
Ignoring and dodging the questions is not an option whatever the age of the child asking. There is no hiding from the naked brutality of what happened in Paris - your child will have seen images on the front of newspapers, all over the television and for this generation of children, splashed all over social media. My 11 year old son had already posted a picture, #prayforparis, on Instagram before I had even got up on Saturday morning . We hadn't had any opportunity to discuss what had happened the night before in Paris but he was already caught up in the outpouring of emotion which swamped Facebook, Instagram and the like. This is so different from when we were children and our country was facing a different type of terrorist threat from the IRA. Our parents could control the flow of information and decide to what extent they explained matters to their children. We don't have that luxury nowadays - everyone is in the know immediately. Parents are on the back foot from the off and we have to accept that our children are going to know more than previous generations and we do not really have the choice as to what they know or do not know.
So how should we handle it? Of course this is very age-dependent and what I tell my six year old daughter and what I tell my 11 year old son are quite different. The emotion, however, that they both feel is the same - fear. It is my role as a parent to allay their fears as much as I can, to provide reassurance but also, I believe, to tell the truth. My instinct is to protect them from as much of the horror as possible but the Internet and social media make this an almost impossible task with any child over the age of about ten.
With my youngest child, it has been a matter of reassurance that she has nothing to worry about and that her world is not going to change. I know I can't honestly say that with any certainty but little children need certainty and routine and I can't expect her to have any real comprehension of the indiscriminate nature of terrorist activity. It is not so easy with my oldest child. He is starting to understand much more of the world around him and the Internet has ensured that he is fully exposed to world events. This does not mean that he has full comprehension of these events and so in answering his questions I need to be mindful of this.
The approach I have taken has been a largely factual one - trying to give him some semblance of understanding as to how we have found ourselves in this position and why the terrorists are targeting people in places like Paris. I have tried to tackle some of the misconceptions he might have had. For example, so-called Islamic State shares absolutely no common values with other Muslims around the world and the activities of the so-called Islamic State are perpetrated by a very small group of people contrary to what the name suggests. A little bit of knowledge seems to have gone some way towards rationalising his fears. I can't tell him what he really wants to know - is he or those he loves in any danger? I don't know the answer - none of us do. Events like this are my son's introduction to the uncertainties which mark the world he is growing up in. Uncertainty, not knowing, unpredictability and randomness are the very things which drive our fear.
All I can say to him is that he should always remain vigilant but we have to continue with our everyday lives and go about our business as normal. We can't allow events such as those in Paris to paralyse us - if we do, terrorism has won. Life is for living, not for waiting for something that might never happen. These are difficult times for parents as we tread the very fine line between reassurance and admission that we don't know everything and we can't be sure what the future holds. One thing that is certain, however, is that we all know our own children and so we have to believe that whatever response we give to difficult questions will be the right one for them.Suggest a correction