When terrible events happen, such as last night’s terror attack in France, parents’ immediate instinct is to shield their children from the news. While this is perfectly natural, it may not always be the best approach, according to experts.
For pre-school kids: This is the only age which experts recommend trying to avoid the subject a little. Children younger than five tend to confuse facts with fears, says Harold Koplewicz, President of the Child Mind Institute, so limiting access to news and watching what you say is advisable. Answer questions, but carefully. “Remember, you don’t have to give them more details than they ask for.”
For primary school aged children, most psychologists suggest letting the young ones lead the way. “If the kids are aware of what happened, a parent’s discussion should be focused on the child’s well-being,” says psychologist Paul Coleman, author of Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces. “The details of who, what, when, and why should guide the discussion to the child’s deeper (perhaps unstated) concerns.”
You do not need to delve into details like the exact number of people who died or were injured, and try not to be overly dramatic or use frightening words, says Coleman. “If you are very upset and they notice, reassure them you will be fine but you are just sad at the news.”
But don’t avoid or disregard your kids’ questions either; older children (aged 6 to 11) are comforted by facts. “For kids this age, knowledge can be empowering and helps relieve anxiety,” says Koplewicz.
Try not to dismiss their fears as foolish, although therapists say it’s fine to point out that events like these are rare and unlikely to directly affect them. Their fears are natural. Children at this age are egocentric and believe that any bad thing that happens anywhere is heading their way.
“Then let your children know that they are safe and loved,” advises Coleman. You can gently point out, with some degree of honesty, that such attacks are very rare, that the bad guys have been caught and the chances of such an attack happening to them are quite slim.
For children aged 11-14: Don’t assume, just because your kids are a little older now, that you know how they feel. Ask them if they’ve heard about the news and what they think. Psychologists suggest that being able to answer all their questions is not as key as just being around to help them absorb the news somewhere they feel safe.
“Answer their questions simply,” says Coleman, “and reassure them that they are safe and that adults are working hard to prevent things like this from happening again.” Kids at this age see things in terms of good guys and bad guys. They might be interested in more of the details, but experts still advise keeping those to a minimum.
And don’t panic if they seem blasé or indifferent about the news; all children process scary information differently. “Children react to disturbing events in different ways,” says Koplewicz. “Some might want to spend extra time with friends and relatives; some might want to spend more time alone. It’s important to let your child know that it is normal to express things in different ways—for example, a person may feel sad but not cry.”
Encourage them to talk and express any fears, especially if they have been involved in any other scary or violent incidents recently. If appropriate, experts say, you might like to review any safety plans you have with them, if your home has fire escapes or if you have a gathering place in case of emergency.
For older children, who are probably reading a lot about current affairs on social media, and hearing about it from their friends, it might be worth explaining in a bit more detail what we know and what we don’t. These are complex issues and not likely to be solved soon, so they may as well be thinking about issues they will be facing in the years to come.
“It’s very typical for teens to say they don’t want to talk,” says Koplewicz. “Try to start a conversation while you are doing an activity together, so that the conversation does not feel too intense or confrontational.”
Experts also recommend that while it’s great to radiate calm, it’s also helpful to share your own feelings on the issue, as part of keeping the discussion going. “Reassurances that they won’t ever get hurt or lose someone in a terrorist attack will not be believed,” says Coleman. “Speak to them in terms of probabilities.”
And by all means talk to them about what to do in the case of an emergency, where they should go if they can’t get home or who they should call if they can’t reach you.