The world in general can be a confusing place for young children, and with all the recent terror activity on the television, it can be downright scary. Chances are if you have feelings about the recent terror attacks, your child does too. As these events become more common, you might be increasingly nervous about how to talk to your child about terrorism. “I don’t know” and “let’s not talk about it” can increase fear in kids. So how do you talk to your child about terrorism? Keep reading for some helpful hints.
Listen more than you speak.
Your child may have a lot of thoughts about the attack. Your child may be wondering, why do people hurt people? How did they do it? Will it happen again? Did people die? There are a thousand questions floating through your child’s mind. Your job is to hear what is said first, and then answer.
In addition, it’s in a parent’s nature to be reassuring, which is good, but hold off before you start comforting your child. If your child does not say he feels unsafe or scared, reassuring him unnecessarily may make him question his feelings of safety and security.
Use an age appropriate explanation.
Be mindful of what your child’s developmental level (where he is at in the understanding of the words you say) when you start your explanations about terrorism. What you say to your 4 year old may be different than what you say to your 10 year old.
Preschool and school age children understand the concept of good guys and bad guys. They also understand what it means to be a helper when someone is hurt. This sort of language can be useful.
Mr. Rogers said it best: “When I was a boy and I would see scary thing in the news, my mother would say to me…’Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’“
Let your child play it out.
Just as you might discuss it with a coworker at your office or the clerk at the grocery store, you need an outlet to express your concern, frustration, shock or anger. What would happen if you weren’t allowed to talk, or if no one would listen? How would you feel?
A child’s outlet for understanding an upsetting situation is thru playing. When hurricane Katrina roared through the south and flooded many communities and killed many people, every child in my preschool classroom was acting it out thru play. Children in the sandbox were building levees, and dumping water, and telling dolls “run, get out of the way!”
One afternoon, a parent came in to pick up his child and tried to stop this play. He thought it was disrespectful to those who had lost their lives. But I encouraged the parent to look closely at what his child was doing. In his play, the child was the rescuer, hoping to save as many lives as he could. He was processing what was happening in the world and self-healing at the same time.
If you see your child acting out a terror attack through play, be an active observer by noticing what it is he is trying to communicate to you before you redirect your child to another activity.
Give your child the power to be his own hero.
If your child is worried about a terrorist attack happening at school, at home, or in the mall, then create a safety plan with them. In addition to telling them what you will do to keep your child safe, empower your child to list out things he or she can do as well.
For instance, does your child know how to dial 911? Ask a police officer for help? Some schools are teaching the Run, Hide, Fight strategy to help students feel safe. Does your child know all the exits at home, school, and the mall? Can he tell you safe places to hide? What about self-defense?
These are all skills that you probably can’t imagine wanting your child to ever know, but if communicated to your child in the right way, his or her ability to know these things may make your child feel safe, and stay safe.
Talk to your child about a time when he felt unsafe and what happened to make him feel safe again.
Even if your child has never been in a terrorist incident or other traumatic situation, nearly every child can tell you a time they felt unsafe or scared. When you encourage your child to talk about what the scary experience was like and what happened to make him feel safer, you encourage your child to feel more in control of the fears.
Maybe your child fell off a swing, and then came to you for a hug? Maybe a doctor’s visit was scary, but ended up feeling ok because of the favorite teddy bear to hold? Examples like these show your child that scary or bad things can’t be avoided but there is a way to make him feel better.
Let your child know authorities are working on fighting terrorism (even if you don’t think so).
Why do I say this? All of us adults have our feelings about politics and our beliefs about what’s being done and not done. Now is not the time to campaign to your child why your beliefs are right. Your child wants to feel safe. You need to make sure all your language to your child reflects that.
Your child needs to feel safe and you have the power to do that. Evidence already suggests that you are a good parent simply by the fact you are researching how to help your child through these trying times. Listening, supporting, and guiding will go a long way to building long lasting skills of resilience.
So tell me, what conversations have you had with your child about terrorism? How do you help your child feel safe?
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children with challenging behaviors to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health.