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How to Talk to Kids About Terrorist Attacks

26/11/2015 10:22 GMT | Updated 25/11/2016 10:12 GMT

How do I talk to my child about the Paris tragedy?

This is a question that parents have understandably been asking in our classes this week. What has happened in Paris and in Beirut recently is a very shocking and terrible thing and how you talk to your children about it will vary a lot depending on the age of your children and their temperament and your own values. While everyone will be appalled by what has happened there may be different aspects of it that you would want to highlight to your children.

Age

If your children are under the age of 3 then hopefully they are unaware of what is going on. I would always try to make sure that this age group are not exposed to the adult content of news programmes and the pictures on the front of the newspapers.

If they are 3-5 then I wouldn't raise it with them unless they ask questions and then try to do it without scaring them unnecessarily. We don't want our children to be assuming that people they see in the street are 'terrorists' or even 'bad people' and we don't want them to be afraid to go to sleep or to go out. Calmly ask them what they know and don't add to the list of horrific facts. If you can see that they are afraid then admit that this was a shocking thing to have happened and that it is natural to feel frightened at first. You will have to find a balance, determined by your child's nature, between not promising them they will always be completely safe which is unrealistic, and making them jump at their own shadow. We face this balancing act already when we talk to our children about 'stranger danger'. You could try something along the lines of "sometimes people get very angry and they do very terrible things and they hurt others. They forget to use their words to sort things out. That's why it's very important to learn to talk about problems and not hurt anyone." This is putting it into words that they can relate to.

This theme can be used with older children too but they may be able to handle more information about what happened and they may be seeing for themselves some of the details in the media. School aged children will probably be hearing it about it at school so it's good to discuss it with them. Ask your aged 10+ children for their ideas about why it happened and what world leaders can do about it. What can we do about it?

Temperament

Some of you will have kids who are oblivious to what's been going on and you're surprised to find that they knew about the attacks at all. Others may have been asking you questions endlessly and worrying about how it happened and being tremendously concerned for the families, for the people of Paris and Beirut, and perhaps for themselves. You may be despairing of how to handle this barrage. You may have an example of each approach in your own family.

This doesn't mean that the first child doesn't have any compassion or doesn't care. But it is an indication of different temperaments. The less sensitive child may not be able to relate to something that's happened far away and is beyond his experience and understanding. The latter child is just more sensitive than the former. It's not good or bad -it just is. And we need to adapt our approach for each temperament.

For the former you may try to raise awareness a little if it feels appropriate whereas for the highly sensitive child you may be trying to temper it a little and to help him deal with his feelings. If you've got both in one family you may have to help one understand the other.

For the child who is very upset you can acknowledge the feelings he is overwhelmed by. Don't try to brush it under the carpet or your child will not be able to tell you about his worries in future. "You are really upset, aren't you? These events overseas have really worried you. You're a person who feels things in a big way and sometimes that is lovely and sometimes it can be burdensome for you. I know you felt really sad for those families of the people who were killed. I'm glad you care." Even if you are not religious it may help to use some kind of ritual to acknowledge the lives of the people who have passed away such as lighting a candle. This will give your child something practical to do.

If your child is very worried that something similar could happen where you live don't tell her there's no need to worry but acknowledge her worries and tell her about the steps that are being taken by the authorities to protect us. Sometimes it can help for children to have a worry box. Get them to write their worries down on a piece of paper and screw the paper up into a tight ball and then put it into the box. Then put the box away somewhere (not in the child's room) until the end of the week. At the end of the week unfold the worries and see that they have not come to pass. You can put them back in the box or throw them away -whatever the child chooses.

Values

You may wonder why I'm mentioning values here. Surely we all have the same values -that this was a terribly wrong thing to do? Well, yes. But there is an opportunity here for us to teach our children something about difference.

As we know this atrocity was committed in the name of an organisation calling itself Islamic State and even though they do not represent the majority of peace-loving people who practice that religion many negative words have been and will be said about Muslims. We can teach our children that not all Muslims are bad people and that they don't need to be afraid of anyone wearing a hijab or otherwise looking a bit 'foreign'. We can teach our older children that the aim of organisations like this is to make us afraid and to stir up dissension between faiths and that is exactly what leads to conflict. Encourage them not to give these bullies the satisfaction. Tell them that you will be going about your daily lives and will not alter what you do because you are not afraid and that you will be kind to any Muslim person you see who must be feeling very uncomfortable.

I was brought up as a Catholic so I can point to the troubles in Ireland and say to my kids that they know full well that not all Catholics are terrorists. If your children have any Muslim friends say to them "Ahmed is not a killer is he?" If you meet a woman wearing Muslim dress smile at her and tell your children why you're making a point of that right now.

Fear comes from lack of understanding and from feeling powerless. Help your children to see that they can make a difference by taking small steps to build trust between people of different faiths. Taking positive action to address these problems and make the world a better place helps empower kids. When Muslim people feel a sense of belonging in their community they will have no reason to join Daesh. Talk with your child about how he or she can take a stand against intolerance. Talk to them about how this may be difficult to do if their friends are bad-mouthing Muslims. Practice with them how to say something like "I don't believe that."

This was a terrible thing to happen but perhaps out if it will come a generation committed to not fearing people who are different and to talking through problems. This may be a learning process for you too if you've grown up in an environment with little exposure to difference races or faiths. Let your children know that you are expanding your own horizons!