With my three year old, it's simple, I don't have to explain what happened over the weekend in Paris to him. We don't have cable so we don't watch news programs that he might catch glimpses of, he can't read the newspaper headlines in the store, he has no idea what is going on, and I am happy to keep it that way for him for now. Add to the fact that at three he wouldn't be able to comprehend most if not all of what I would be explaining to him in the first place.
For my older kids, it gets a little bit trickier. The classroom and the school bus (oh the conversations they have on the BUS!) are rife with little snippets that can easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Maybe there's a fifth grader who knows all the details because he saw some footage on a news program and is embellishing it for his audience. Maybe a teacher is bringing it up as a teachable moment opportunity.
And let's add in a new wrinkle to the mix that most of us didn't contend with as children, school drills. No, not fire drills. The new "shelter in place" type drills, the ones that we all don't like to think about. Our kids are (rightfully so) being taught how to respond to scary situations while in a place they should deem as safe. It would be surprising to not think that some of these kids will associate some of these world events with these drills as well.
With all that being said, it might be best to broach the subject first to get an idea of what their grasp of the news is. That way you can see if they have any misinformation, any questions, anything they might want to talk about in a safe and comforting way. Most of this advice is for older school aged children, around age 8 and up.
Some of the most useful tips I've been reading about?
- Limit their exposure to media on the event. This one is a big one, because you might just turn the news on and not think of it, leave the room to go make dinner and unwittingly leave the kids there to watch a segment about a very scary situation that they don't know how to process. Be mindful of what they are taking in, and whether the information is suitable for them.
- If you have older school aged children, try opening up a dialogue by saying, "Did you talk about what happened in Paris in school today?" and let their responses dictate what direction the conversation goes. Sometimes it is better, for older children, to broach a scary subject in a safe place where they feel comfortable. They may have talked about it at school but perhaps they didn't feel comfortable asking questions then. Give them the space to ask questions, but keep details that may increase their fears out of the conversation. Don't overload them with information that may be difficult to understand. With kids of any age, again, let their questions and age range guide what is appropriate to tell them. Listening carefully to their concerns can be a cue to you as a parent as to what they need to hear to feel better about the situation.
- Validate their feelings. If they tell you they are scared, acknowledge that feeling. It can be a knee-jerk reaction to tell kids "You don't need to be scared" and to combine that with an explanation that you will keep them safe, or to explain that what happened was "far away". But kids can know that you can keep them safe while also having you validate their normal feelings of being frightened. Telling them they don't have to be scared can be dismissive, and might make them less likely to share those feelings in the future. Keep in mind, that even though you might not be able to totally assuage their fears and anxieties, simply giving them the space to talk about them and get them out in the open is a big help.
- In that same vein, don't try to side step or redirect some of their questions. They might ask some tough ones, ones that focus on the more difficult to answer subjects. Focusing on just the "positive" (i.e. people who are helping, ways we are safe) is unrealistic and doesn't do the whole service at dissuading their fears. Answer the question the best you can according to their age range, and avoid going into details that may be upsetting, but by avoiding it altogether you may leave their imagination to take them to a scarier place than just having the question answered somewhat directly by someone they trust.
- Focus on the ways that you as a family and ways that their school and community help to keep them safe. Sometimes what kids really want is that simple reassurance from you that they will be safe, and again, don't over-explain the situation, and know that you might not be able to put all their fears completely at ease. Focusing on the people in our community who work to keep us safe it can help kids also change their focus from who might hurt us to who can help us.
Be sure to keep your own feelings out of the mix in these conversations, and focus on what the kids need to feel okay. I know that me personally, I used to want to glean every single detail of information about events like this in order to feel like I understood, thinking that by keeping up with the news it would help me keep control of my feelings on the situation, but that probably isn't the way my kids will process this. Everyone processes fears and anxieties in different ways, and even from child to child, they might need different types of reassurances from you to feel safe.
Even typing these things I ask myself, how am I supposed to convey to my children that we are all safe when I'm not even sure we are? The answer really is simple, you are their parent, so you do it. You tell them you will keep them safe, and you will always do your best to do that, end of story.
Illustration by artist Jean Jullien, find out more about it here