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Talking to Kids About Terrorism and Tragedy

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Yesterday’s attack at the Ariana Grande concert has many children frightened about their safety.  Why did it happen? Could it happen to us? The recent world events are difficult enough for adults to grasp and comprehend, so it’s just that much harder to discuss these complex events with children. Parents are wondering what they can do to ease their child’s fears.  Here are some points of consideration when building your approach:


  1. Filter and Process Information


Use your own adult wisdom to properly screen the traumatic information coming to your child to ensure it’s age appropriate.  I suggest that for all but the most mature children, you simply turn off the radio and TV.  Even if you think your toddler doesn’t understand what is being said on the TV, the visual images are frightening.  You can get information on the event yourself later by reading about it on line, or by watching the news after the kids go to bed.  Discussions are less likely to incite fear and anxiety than a news report will.


Even with the TV off, children will be hearing about the news through social media.  With kids going online at younger ages than ever before, you will have to be prepared to explain, discuss and help make sense of what they are hearing.  Make your parental presence felt as that will create feelings of security.


  1.  Don’t Lie 


When discussing difficult matters, whether it is a terrorist attack, a random shooting, an abduction, an earthquake or someone’s cancer diagnosis, it’s important that you don’t lie.  A child will likely uncover a lie and feel betrayal, lack trust in you and they’ll wonder what is wrong with them that their own parents didn’t trust them enough to tell them the truth.   Instead, using the screening of information to decide which truthful elements are age appropriate to share.  For a young child, you may simply say “something tragic happened at a place where people were gathered and many people are upset because people died and got injured and many many people were scared” For an older child “There was an explosion at a concert and several people were killed and many people were injured. It has caused a panic because terrorist attacks don’t often happen here.  People are left feeling scared.


  1. Help Them Feel Safe 


The bigger job is to help our children make sense of the random act of terror and restore a sense of calm security.  Parents should re-assure their children that Canada is one of the safest countries to live in, and that we have a very low murder rate.  In fact, random acts of violence are so rare that statistically speaking, it’s far more dangerous driving to a concert than the chance of being shot at one during. Lately, the news has been particularly gruesome with the focus on acts of terrorism. Terrorists win when they erode our sense of safety, so the best course of action to take the power away from terrorists is to not feel terrified and go about our business without being crippled by the fear they are hoping to entice. If media were properly balanced, we would all see that humanity is largely full of safe, loving people who do good deeds for one another. That is the more accurate depiction of our society. Explain to your children that “ firefighters get cat down from tree” is not making the news they are hearing – but acts of kindness and the goodness of people is far more reaching than freakish acts of evil.


  1. Your Attitude is Infectious


Your children observe your reactions as a barometer for knowing how they should be feeling about events.  You cannot properly calm your child’s fears if you are still worried yourself.  Deliver your messages with a calm re-assurance and don’t over protect or helicopter parent. I was deeply disturbed by the news and I cried in front of my children, but I did not feel fearful. I felt motivated to post this article.


  1. DO Something


Just as I felt motivated to “do something” to express my upset and put my energies toward making things better for humankind, the same is true for children. If they are upset, turn those emotions in to the spark of seeking justice and expressing compassion. What would your child like to do to? Maybe they would like to write a note on social media expressing their sympathies. Perhaps they want to light a candle in memory of those who died and say a few words. Be creative, and follow your child’s interest in how they would best like to help.


  1.  Respond to Needs for Extra Cuddles


It is natural for a child to become extra clingy when they have experienced some extreme stressor or trauma.  They might even act baby-like in order to invite extra nurturing.  Be generous with your love and cuddles.  Touch has a powerful ability to release a cascade of chemicals in the body that helps relieve stress. Just be sure you don’t alter some basic limits and boundaries or feel pity. Pity sends the message “I don’t believe you can manage” when in fact we want our children to know that we believe they can! That is a vote of confidence which builds their self-esteem and sense of security.


  1. Promote Acceptance and Tolerance


Children are born accepting and tolerant. Racism and hatred are taught. Be sure your child is growing up with an attitude of acceptance of differences between people and celebrate everyone’s unique qualities and strengths. Read children’s storybooks that have acceptance of difference as a theme. Be inclusive in your choice of friends and neighbors so your children have the opportunity to make friends with diverse ethnicities and beliefs.

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

More about Alyson

6 Responses to “Talking to Kids About Terrorism and Tragedy”

  1. Marko @ Parent Support Hub

    Great article! I agree with you that we should tell our kids the truth. Also, we shouldn’t assume that because the kids are older, they don’t feel scared. Medical experts suggest that you should be willing to answer all their questions, but avoid going into the gruesome details. On the other hand, high school kids have access to social media and it is worth explaining the events to them in more details.

  2. Heather

    Great message. Thanks.

    (A heads up that the number sequence is incorrect. 5 is missing.)

  3. Andrea Hillenbrand

    Thank you, Alyson. So useful, as always!

    • Alyson Schafer

      Thanks Andrea! Appreciate you taking the time comment. Its nice to know people read the posts and find them helpful.


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