The Washington Post

How to talk to kids about Osama bin Laden

“Tell me what happened that is so important?” my 4-year-old asked this morning as my husband and I talked over her.

How are you talking to your kids about Bin Laden? (STR//REUTERS)

I looked at my daughter, confident her question would lead to a teachable moment. Three words into my answer, once I hit the verb “kill,” I got tongue-tied.

The need to explain the news is not just demanded of parents of the preschool set. School-aged kids and high-schoolers, too, may be confused by national jubilation over a death. Not to mention the allusions to an act of profane violence that affected so many families in the area.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has some good general guidelines.

For a more localized point of view, I asked Laura Newton, the Montgomery County School Counseling Services Supervisor and D.C . family therapist Jennifer Kogan.

Here’s their advice, and make sure to check KidsPost in Tuesday’s paper for more on the subject:


• Children need comforting and frequent reassurance that they are safe.

• Provide extra comfort and contact by discussing the child’s fears at night, by telephoning during the day and with extra physical comforting.

• Try to get a better understanding of a child’s feelings about the event.

• Answer all questions they ask and provide them with loving comfort and care.

• Provide realistic assurance by saying, “ You are safe now,” “ We are here to protect you,” “Adults work hard to make things safe.”

• Monitor children’s media viewing. Consider limiting  the amount of  news coverage they see.

• Allow children to express themselves through play, drawing and writing.

• Don’t be afraid to say, “I do not know.”

Here’s an edited excerpt from an e-mail Kogan sent me:

The first things parents need to ask themselves is: Am I comfortable talking about this? Does it make me anxious or upset? If yes, perhaps your partner or another family member should facilitate this conversation.

Try not to worry that talking about violence will make a child fearful. Kids as young as 4 know about violent acts, but all children need help voicing their concerns. An important point: Talking about a violent act will not increase a child’s fear. Keeping feelings inside and not expressing them is much more harmful than talking about something violent.

Before jumping in and talking, it is a good idea to explore what might be on your child’s mind first. This will help clarify where they are coming from so you address their concerns and not what you presume they are thinking.

Also, if a child or teen does not seem to want to talk about the bin Laden situation, let it go until another time. This type of discussion can always be revisited.

For older children and teens who want to talk, it is a great opening for talking about morals, values and ethics. Kids will learn that there may not be a “right” answer here but we know our ideas and feelings are welcome and safe having this discussion with our parents.

Kogan also provided some developmental milestones for talking about death in general:

Preschool children usually see death as temporary. Death can be very confusing to them. They may think you can “wish” someone dead.

Ages 5 to 9: Most kids begin to see that death is final and that all living things die, but still they do not see death as personal.

Ages 9 to 12: Children may see death as punishment for poor behavior. They have developed a strong sense of good and bad and ask more about what happened.

Teenagers: They views death as inevitable, universal, irreversible and may question the meaning of life.

Have your children asked about the news today? How are you responding?



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