It’s a sad fact that there are scary stories in the news that can deeply impact our kids when they hear them, including news of terrorist attacks. To help parents with that challenging task of talking with our kids about terrorism, I’m grateful to share this helpful guest post by Ritamaria Laird, MA, LCPC, NCC, a leading expert in pediatric mental health in Chicago who treats children struggling with a variety of emotional and behavioral issues at Individual and Family Connection.
It is difficult enough for adults to process and cope with the overwhelming thoughts and emotions that emerge following a violent act such as a terrorist attack. Finding answers to seemingly basic questions is nearly impossible. And what if these questions come from your children? Many parents wonder if they should protect and hide the realities of violence from their children or if they should be open, honest, and answer all questions, no matter how difficult. Maybe you fall somewhere in between. The reality is that our children are often exposed to violence on a local and global level. It is import that the adults in these children’s lives are able to reassure and convey not only a sense of understanding and support, but reassurance of safety and security. It is difficult to know how much information is appropriate to share or how to talk about such complex matters to a small child. Below are some guidelines that may help parents feel more confident in talking to their children about human violence and terrorism.
Your child will sense and adopt the emotions you bring to your conversation. If you are calm, your child will also feel secure and calm. If you are feeling too uncomfortable, anxious, or overwhelmed to discuss this topic with your child, wait until a later time or seek out someone to talk to yourself. You may also choose to ask another trusted adult, such as a teacher or friend, to talk to your child and offer support.
Provide the opportunity to explore
Ask your child what they know and from what source. Is their knowledge coming from the television or from kids at school? Knowing the nature of the source will help you gage their understanding of the topic and guide your conversation.
Keep in mind the child’s developmental age
The amount of information you share is dependent on your child’s developmental level. Provide simple and general information, but allow space for questions. Leave out details that may create increased fear or compromise your child’s sense of safety. Remember, your main goal is to convey a sense of security for your child. Listen to your child and provide information based on your child’s questions.
Listen to and empathize with your child’s fears and concerns, even if they seem irrational
Your child’s fears and worries are most likely very different from your own. Take the time to understand your child’s unique perspective without assuming your child feels as you do. Many children fear that something bad may happen directly to their family or loved ones. They may become fearful of separations from care givers. A parent leaving for work can trigger a temper tantrum, going to school may become a battle, and even leaving the child to use the restroom may become an anxiety provoking situation. This is not the time to yell or lecture your child, no matter how difficult the behavior. This is the time to listen to your child’s feelings, words, and behavior. The more your child feels heard and supported, the more likely your child is to gain understanding about his world and strengthen his sense of safety and security.
Reassurance, Safety, and Security
This should be your primary goal and focus when discussing terrorism and other acts of violence with your child. You can assure your child that terrorist attacks are a rarity. Discuss that most places and people are safe every day. Talk about the many times your child and family has been separated and nothing happened. You may explain safety precautions your work or schools have in place so that children and families are safe. Verbalize your understanding of your child’s worries. Ask your child what will make them feel safe. Get creative. Perhaps you will leave notes in your child’s lunch box, promise to check on them before you go to bed, or allow them to call home once during the school day. Offering these opportunities teaches positive coping skills, problem solving, reinforces a feeling of security with the parent, and offers the child a sense of control.
“Will it Happen Again?”
Of course there is no way of knowing whether an act of violence may reoccur. However, what your child is really asking is “Am I going to be alright? Is my family safe?” Your child is seeking reassurance that they are out of harm’s way. Reassure them that you will keep them safe and offer them security in the world.
“What About Kids Like Me?”
Many children wonder if other children were hurt in the attack. If children were hurt, express to your own child how sad this is. Identifying and labeling your own feelings with help your child understand his own internal state and emotions. Allow your child to feel sad, because it is sad. You do not want to dismiss your child’s emotions, or to make them go away. Your goal is to help your child experience and express his feelings in a healthy way.
“Why and Who is the Bad Guy?”
Details related to answering these questions will depend on your child’s developmental age. Continue to provide general and simple information, allowing your child’s comments and questions to lead the discussion. You may be able to express the various perspectives and encourage your child to also develop his own perspective taking skills. It is important to teach your child that acts of violence are not committed by or represent the thoughts and beliefs of an entire race or ethnic group. Stress the importance of treating all individuals as equals no matter what race or background.
Many kids will not know or have the words to express how they are feeling, but will be experiencing intense emotions such as sadness, fear, anxiety, and anger. They may communicate their emotions through behavior such as irritability, sleep troubles, or frequent crying. Ask your child how they are feeling. You may also verbalize your own feelings about the matter. Be patient and supportive. Offer them positive ways to express their feelings such as writing a letter, drawing a picture, or even donating to the families that were directly impacted.
When to Seek Help
If your child is seems especially sad or upset for many days and the worries are interfering with school performance, social activity, and daily functioning then you should seek professional help and support from a school counselor or mental health professional.
Ritamaria Laird, MA, LCPC, NCC is a leading expert in pediatric mental health in Chicago, IL. She treats children struggling with a variety of emotional and behavioral issues at Individual and Family Connection in Lincoln Park. Read more about Rita at: IFCcounseling.com
You can find Individual and Family Connection on Facebook, too.
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