Sadly and not surprisingly, I have received a rash of emails from parents wondering how to explain to their children the heinous, violent terrorism that happened in Paris. These were parents of children of all ages.
How I wish one could actually explain something that is so monstrous and actually unthinkable. None of us can comprehend what went on; we are stick to our stomachs. As little as we understand, how can we expect a child to get it? For all these years your child has been taught to “Use your words.” How crazy and terrifying it must seem to her.
First and foremost, children under the age of 7 years do not need to know what happened. If they do, remember that they are egocentric and concrete thinkers. The young child looks at life as it affects her. She might ask what happened, followed by a puzzled, “Why?” The parent becomes paralyzed and tongue tied, thinking she must find the words to explain geo-religious-political circumstances that led to the violence. But the question under the question is, “ AM I SAFE?” So breathe. The young child needs to be reassured that she is safe and so are the people in her life. She does not need a lecture, not even an explanation of what and why. But, in the event that your child has heard about the Paris attacks and comes to you, take time to react carefully and deliberately.
Responding to the older children (elementary and middle school ages) is addressed below.
With this in mind, I offer you of the following tips:
Stay calm. Children absorb your feelings and pick up cues from you about how to react. If you are anxious and frightened, they will be, too.
Find out what, if anything the child has heard that may have led to her question. I am so glad you are asking me. Tell me, what did you hear?
Protect your child (under seven) from the media. That means turning off the news in the car or on your kitchen television. Save your discussions with your older children and other adults for a time when young ears are nowhere near.
Don’t whisper! (Don’t spell, don’t use Pig Latin!) The moment you communicate in any of these ways, your children’s ears perk right up!
Do not avoid questions and tell the truth…to an extent. Yes, some people were hurt (killed) in a place called Paris that is very far away from us here.
Emphasize that your child is safe. You may not truly believe this, but your child needs to. Your child is safe, so tell her so. Discuss all the people whose job it is to keep us all safe.
It is okay not to know the answer to a question. While your child expects you, the omniscient parent, to know all the answers to all her questions, it is not always possible. Saying that you do not know something can be an acceptable answer.
Right before bed is not a good time for anyone to have this discussion!
Older children (elementary school or middle school age) may need more of an explanation. In addition to a version of the above tips, the following might be useful:
You know your child best. Only you know how your child might react to such terrifying news. Different children have different levels of anxiety and feelings of vulnerability. Adapt your explanations to your particular child.
Find out what she has heard and what she already knows. You may have to correct misinformation.
Follow your child’s lead, and answer only the questions your child asks. Do not add to her fear by telling her more than she has asked. Your child’s primary need is to feel safe, regardless of your feelings about politics, terrorism, and the like.
Do not dwell in the details. Do not flood your child with information or explanations she doesn’t need to know.
Do not be overly dramatic. While you don’t want to underplay the severity of the situation, keep in mind that your child will absorb your affect and fears. Be serious; don’t be dramatic.
If your child has seen or heard you expressing sadness, you can explain how sad you feel. After all, sadness is a very real reaction to such a tragedy.
Always take the time to check her understanding of what you have said. Be sure to give small pieces of information at a time, then pause, and wait for her reaction and questions. And again, answer what your child asks and be careful not to give more than is asked.
Do not downplay your child’s fears. Your child needs you to acknowledge her fears. However, your primary job is to let her know that she is safe and that you will keep her safe. She needs to be reassured that the attacks happened very far away and that these kinds of things are very rare.
Explain the effects of the internet. Help your children to see that the speed or presence of the internet often makes us believe that an event is bigger and closer than it actually is. It makes us feel that it happens all the time. Explain that we don’t hear about all the good news in the world, all the airplanes that land safely. We only hear about the crashes. And we hear over and over and over, making it seem like it happened right next door.
If your child does not react, do not worry. Children process things differently, at different speeds and in different ways. One child may immediately display signs of anxiety and fear, while another gives a simple, “Oh.”
Regardless of the child’s age, questions should be answered simply and without a lot of details. Some possible scripts for answering your older child’s questions are as follows:
Who are the people who did that? We don’t yet know exactly who did those horrible things. We do know that they are terrorists.
What is a terrorist? A terrorist is someone who tries to scare, frighten, sometimes hurt and even kill other people. Terror is another word for frighten. There are many many many more people in the world who are not terrorists than are. Most people are good people.
Remember that elementary school and middle school age children see the world in black and white, bad guys and good guys. Help them to know that the great majority of people in the world are good guys. Terrorists, however, are bad, really BAD guys!
Why are the terrorists trying to hurt people? I don’t know the exact reason that those people want to hurt, maim, and even kill people. I do know that they are very angry about something and don’t use proper or safe ways to deal with their feelings and beliefs.
What did they do? I have read that these very bad people hurt and shot other people. Unfortunately, there are bad people in the world who do really bad, horrible things. Most people, however, are not bad.
Why did they do that? I don’t know the exact reason why. When a terrorist acts out, it is usually because he disagrees with the beliefs or actions of a group of people or even of a government of a country.
What will happen to the terrorists? There are many people all over the world who are working to find the terrorists. Everyone wants those people caught. Adults all over the world are working hard to make sure such an attack doesn’t happen again.
Just because a child is older doesn’t mean she isn’t frightened by incidents like the attack in Paris. Children of all ages have big fears. And all children need to be reassured and reminded of all the good people in the world, of all the people who are coming together to prevent such a crime from happening again. Your job as a parent is to listen to your children, to reassure them of their safety, and the BE there with them and for them, especially at times like this.