As news of yet another terrorist attack made its way into our days recently, you may have wondered, like me, how to talk about it with your children. And better yet, how to talk about our world in a way that won’t make them anxious or afraid of everything around them. Childhood should be a time of wonder, not worry, right? Sometimes that doesn’t feel like a simple thing to create when our faces are glued to screens giving us minute-by-minute updates of attacks meant to harm, kill and, yes, make us anxious.
But the truth is our children’s lives are different than ours were. That’s not to say they won’t be made of wonder. It’s just that we have to think about conversations with them that our parents didn’t need to consider.
“I do think that unfortunately, exposure to terrorism has become a fact of life to kids growing up today, and we have to talk about it like other facts of life,” says Kathleen Trainor, a child psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, instructor at Harvard University, and author of the upcoming book Calming Your Anxious Child: Words to Say and Things to Do. “Be open to questions and create a space to ask questions, but do not force kids to talk about it. But that’s a thin line. You don’t want to impose too much information on them.”
The key is to be sensitive to developmental stages, she said. The younger the child, the simpler the response should be, and the more necessary it is to talk about their personal safety.
“They immediately personalize it. Help them put it in perspective,” Trainor says. “With younger children, talk about all the good guys working very, very hard to keep everyone safe and to catch the bad guys. And remind them this happened very far away.”
Older children, she says, are capable of understanding more information and “you have to know your own child and how much they can absorb without getting too anxious.”
How to do that? “Keep it in perspective and stress that they are safe and it’s not happening to them or their family,” she says. “I think for most kids this will be a transient concern that comes up repeatedly. Reassure, answer questions and move on.”
Usually, kids will be just fine and you’ll see them playing as they always did. “Kids can be very resilient. They’ll be off playing. They can be a lot more accepting, especially if you give them what they need in terms of support and reassurance,” she says. If you find your child is stuck in fear and can’t seem to move on, or is having nightmares and difficulty separating from their parents, then they may need some extra help.
Other things for parents to be aware of: Protect children as much as possible from violent images, which are, well, everywhere. Also, coordinating with the school, particularly if you have an anxious child, is important. Find out what the school is saying about these events so you know how to talk about it at home.
And if a parent is anxious? “Be super self-aware and do not burden your child with your concerns. Find other outlets and be aware that kids have big ears,” Trainor says.
“I really believe it’s a fact of life for kids growing up today in a way that it wasn’t before. And parents need to prepare to talk to them about it. I don’t think it’s going away any time soon, and [children] have to learn how to keep it in perspective, just as parents do, as we all do,” Trainor advises. “It’s not something we grew up with. But we have to live our lives and keep our own fears in perspective.” And help our kids maintain that childhood wonder.
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