Terrorism and tragedy are all too real these days. It can be hard to talk to your child about the scary things we see and hear on the news. Many of us pretend they don’t hear about this at school or see the images that we see, but they do. The sad reality is, horrific acts have become more common in the world we live in. We can certainly shield them from TV, but we can’t hide their eyes or ears to the information they hear at school, the images the see at the store, or the anxiety they pick up from us, the adults in their life.
Here’s my segment on KEYE TV’s We Are Austin about how to talk to your kids about the serious and devastating events happening around the world all too often, and sometimes in your own backyard. So how do you talk to your kids when you’re feeling the emotions too?
Understandably, many parents want to avoid talking to kids about terrorism and tragedy as we fear it will make them more anxious or traumatize them. We need to go towards the fear because I’d rather them hear it from you than the kids on the playground.
Take my conversation with Luke the other day. This bright and energetic 7- year-old began having a hard time going to sleep “out of the blue,” his mother said. When Luke told me where his mind went at night, it was quite telling. “The guy on the news shot people. What if he comes into my house and shoots my family?” he said.
It turns out Luke was running an errand with his mom and saw the news about a shooting. Kids at school talked about a bomb and attack in another country. “The bad guys went to restaurants and people died.” He’s not wrong. And no wonder he’s having more anxiety when his family goes out to eat or at night before bed. These thoughts are hard to shake, especially for kids.
I asked him why he didn’t share these thoughts with his parents, and he said, “I don’t want them to be scared too.” Oh the innocence of children! Talking to kids about tough stuff does take away some their innocence, but it can help them feel safe and reduce anxiety driven behaviors and thoughts that interfere with their lives.
Terrorism and Tragedy:Why We Need to Talk to Kids
Parents, teachers, and caring adults can help by listening and responding in an honest, consistent, and supportive manner. Most children, even those exposed to trauma, are resilient. Like most adults, they can and do get through difficult times and go on with their lives. The American Academy of Children and Adolescent Psychiatric recommends this guideline for parents when talking about scary stuff like terrorism and tragedy with their kids:
- Give children honest answers and information. Children will usually know if you’re not being honest.
- Acknowledge and support your child’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let your child know that you think their questions and concerns are important.
- Avoid stereotyping groups of people by race, nationality, or religion. Use the opportunity to teach tolerance and explain prejudice. I’d also add that parents need to be mindful of how they talk about these topics at home. Kids pick up on your dialogue. Children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They are very aware of how you respond to events. And they learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.
- Let children know how you are feeling. It’s okay for them to know if you are anxious or worried about events. However, don’t burden them with your concerns. Let them know how you feel better and what makes you feel safe.
Talk to Your Child and Provide Support
I’ve found the following to be helpful for parents struggling with finding the words to help their kids with scary situations:
- Don’t let children watch lots of violent or upsetting images on TV. Repetitive, frightening images or scenes can be very disturbing, especially to young children.
- Be mindful of your own media consumption; don’t leave it on in the background or talk about these topics when they’re in the room. They can hear you even when you think they are engrossed in their iPad.
- Children who have experienced trauma or losses may show more intense reactions to tragedies or news of war or terrorist incidents. These children may need extra support and attention.
- Watch for possible preoccupation with violent movies or war theme video/computer games. Children who seem preoccupied or very stressed about war, fighting, or terrorism should be evaluated by a qualified mental health professional. Other signs that a child may need professional help include: trouble sleeping and/or nightmares , persistent upsetting thoughts, fearful images, intense fears about death, and trouble leaving their parents or going to school.
- Help children communicate with others and express themselves at home. Some children may want to write letters to the President, governor, local newspaper, or to grieving families.
- Let children be children. They may not want to think or talk a lot about these events. It is just fine if they’d rather play ball, climb trees, or ride their bike, etc.
Discuss Your Anxiety About Terrorism and Tragedy
Scary situations are not easy for anyone to comprehend or accept, especially children who have only heard and seen a few things from glimpses of the news or friends at school. Here are some suggestions for discussing this difficult topic without re-traumatizing your child and yourself.
Before You Talk:
- Talk to your partner: Make sure both of you are on the same page about how to approach it. You don’t want your child hearing a graphic, emotionally charged version from one parent and a nonchalant version from another; that is confusing. Make sure you set boundaries on how much information you both feel is appropriate.
- Talk to your child’s teacher: Ask how they have presented it in class, and if other children are talking about it. Coordinate information between home and school. Parents should know about activities and discussions at school. Teachers should know about the child’s specific fears or concerns.
- Discharge your own anxiety: This conversation is to help your child, not to project your own anxieties; kids pick up on this and absorb your thoughts and anxieties.
- Start with a question: “Have you heard the _______?” “Have any of your friends talked about _______?”
- Let them drive the conversation: Try to avoid discounting their questions like, “that’s not important” or “why do you need to know.” This will likely spur more of an interest. Try asking questions like, “what questions do you have?”, “What have you learned?”, “How does it make you feel when you hear about it?” or “How can I help you?”
- Be prepared to repeat explanations or have several conversations: Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may be your child’s way of asking for reassurance.
- Look for the heroes and stories of hope: Remind your child about the heroes and the bravery that occurred, and how our country came together to support each other. Find articles about healing and hope, and people who were brave in the face of tragedy.
- Use honesty: It is likely that they will ask, “Will it happen again?” Try and be honest, letting them know that you’re not sure but confident in the safety plan our country has set up, and is keeping us safe.
After the Conversation:
- Remain available: Remind them that if they have any questions, you will be there to answer them if they want to discuss it.
- And Remember: This may bring up some anxiety or fears. However, this is a very normal response; be sure to reiterate how safe we are and what our country does to keep us safe.
It’s unfortunate that we need to expose our children to this scary world and you don’t have to talk about all the terrorism and tragedy. Rather the things that hit close to home or make national news. It’s likely they are hearing about it. Look, if we don’t start the conversation someone else will. It’s kind of like the way we look at sex education: would you prefer to tell them the facts or have them hear it from a kid on the bus home from school? I know it can be frustrating, but your child deserves to feel safe and connected to caregivers when hearing about these events.
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Emily Roberts MA, LPC is The Guidance Girl. Her goal is to help YOU become the most confident person you know! Emily is an award-winning author Express Yourself: A Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Becoming Who You Are, Psychotherapist, TV & Media Contributor, Educational Speaker, and parenting consultant. She travels around the country educating girls, women, and parents. Express Yourself is available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon. To learn more about Emily click here.