With the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and the far reaching fear of the Islamic State’s use of terror across the world you may be wondering how to approach this touchy subject with your children. Questions regarding how much to share or not share, and how to communicate honestly but carefully what is happening around the world can be difficult. Here are general guidelines on how to talk with your children about terrorism.
WHEN TO AVOID
First rule of thumb when talking to your kids about traumatic events is matching what you say to their age.
Preschoolers don’t need to know any details of events like these. Keeping them away from the images and news of these events is helpful as at their age they are unable to separate fear and facts. Children at this age do not have the ability to organize facts within their context therefore over-exposure to the nature of the attacks can lead to excessive and unnecessary anxiety. However, if your children see you tearful or ask about what is happening it is okay to share BRIEFLY what has happened and that they are safe with you right now. It is also important to share that the event has already happened and that there is nothing to fear right now. Should children say they are scared, it’s important to validate their fears and normalize that it is very common to be scared. Stay calm and do not spend too much time on the subject, re-direct your children to something they enjoy and most importantly keep your routines going.
KEEP IT REAL AND SIMPLE
On to the older children, with their use of social media it is not far-fetched to say that they will likely know of the events well before you have a chance to talk with them. A lot of times they will have already seen images and heard the most up-to-date details regarding the loss of the life, the perpetrators of such attacks, and what this means for American safety. In these cases, be sure to be available and answer your children’s or teen’s questions with honesty and don’t be afraid to have a talk about safety.
For elementary children letting them guide the questions and sharing the simple facts (avoid the gritty details) can be helpful. Whereas with younger children facts can be confusing, for elementary school-aged kids facts can be comforting. Having knowledge can help them make sense of what happened which ultimately helps them feel empowered and relieve anxiety. It may be that your children don’t come out and say it, but often children may have deep-seated concern as to what these events mean to their current safety. Discuss with your children the safety measures that are in place around the country and around the world to prevent acts like these from happening again. Discuss the rarity of such events and do not over dramatize or minimize the probability of it happening again. Children tend to see the world as black and white, good guys and bad guys. Help kids see the “bad guys” as a small group that is not lurking around every corner. Lastly for this age group, normalize their feelings, be available, and keep their routines going.
As for the pre-teens … there is not one size fit all. Know your child and the extent of detail you can share. For younger teens they may have a lot of details already so help them make sense of it and put it in context. Don’t seem unconcerned, but be sure not to appear overly dramatic. How you manage your fear will send powerful messages to your teen on how to manage theirs. There will definitely be a pull to reassure your pre-teen that they are 100% safe, however at this age this will not be believed. Be realistic with your pre-teen as to the current dangers, and speak to them regarding the low probability of something happening to them. Highlight the many people in their lives to protect them: parents, teachers, law enforcement, soldiers, etc. Lastly, normalize how they feel and allow for them to share their thoughts and feelings without judgment.
BE AN OPEN BOOK (within reason)
Most likely your teen knows all the event details and what this means on a socio-political level. Therefore hiding the facts or sugar coating the extent of the problem will only isolate your teen from you as a source of information. Open the lines of communication and discuss your honest feelings surrounding the event. If your teen is like most, it’s unlikely they will come out and talk to you about what is going on directly, therefore don’t be afraid to be the first to start the dialogue. However, avoid questioning them and be an open book with your OWN thoughts and feelings, this will more likely spark conservation. Once the line of communication is open it may be a good time to discuss both the safety measures in place to prevent such acts of violence locally and globally, as well as what they can due in case of an emergency.
There would be nothing better than to shield children from the ills of the world, unfortunately we can’t always achieve this. Instead, being available to answer the difficult questions, and model and teach children how to manage their fears offers a silver lining to an otherwise all around difficult situation.
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