In the past few days, I have had a number of parents call me and ask what they should tell their children about the recent attacks in Paris (11/13/15). Depending on their child’s age, my response has been a little different, but there are some things that can apply to all ages.
The information in today’s blog is based on research and personal experience working with children and families while I was in Rochester, NY after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. No one experiences events like this in the exact same way regardless of whether you are an adult or child. So read through the suggestions below and do what feels best for you, the parent, and what you think will work best for your child.
Children don’t understand what has happened or why it has happened. Quite frankly, neither do most adults. If you have multiple children, each will respond and react in his or her own way. It is important to answer your child’s questions as honestly as possible at an age appropriate level and as calmly as possible. If you need some time to think about what you want to say, what you believe or how you feel, take the time before you talk to your child. Talk to someone else to bounce ideas of him/her to help you feel comfortable. Let your child know that you are thinking about how to answer some of their questions and want to make sure you have an answer that will make sense.
Children are often most concerned with safety and are very curious – if you have ever had a 2-3 year old, you know there can be a never ending stream of “Why”s. Sometimes we don’t have the answers to their “Why”s, but we can help them feel safe. Reassure your child that you are in charge of keeping them safe. You will not willingly put them in harm’s way. Talk about things you already do around your house to keep your child and family safe (i.e., lock doors to your house, wear seatbelts/buckle into car seats in the car, have an emergency plan to go to the neighbor’s house if there is a fire or you smell gas – or even if you get locked out). Again, remember to keep it age appropriate. Children don’t need to know everything. My kids didn’t know that we had a fire plan when they were toddlers, but they did know our last name and our phone number from the time they could talk/sing. We taught them our phone number by singing it to Mary Had A Little Lamb and substituting the phone number for the words.
As for the “Why”s, answer the smallest question you can. By that I mean that you don’t need to go into a two hour lecture about the history of war or about crazy people. Sometimes kids just want to know where Paris is on the map or how far away they are from the event. They also want to know if it could happen here. Again, reassure them that it is rare and that you are doing everything to keep them safe. You can also ask your child what she has heard or what she already knows. This will help you better understand what she is asking and how to answer her questions.
Keep things as normal as possible. When 9/11 happened, even though our world was turned upside down, preschools through high schools continued to run as scheduled to help keep things as normal as possible. There were often extra counselors on hand for both the students and the staff, but other than that, kids continued to be kids and go to classes. Continue to live and do things as you normally would, while being aware that you might continue to have conversations that you normally wouldn’t have with tough questions you wouldn’t normally be asked to answer.
If your child seems extra anxious or concerned – again, don’t worry, but be responsive. Continue to reassure your child that you are there to help keep him safe (as are teachers, police officers, fire fighters, nurses and doctors, too). Sometimes children will regress (if they were potty trained, they might need a little re-training – be kind and gentle), other children might have separation anxiety (again or for the first time). This will pass, so don’t make a big deal about it, but do reassure your child that you will be back. Offer a picture of you (or the family) or write a note for your child to hang onto until you return. For older children, you can ask a question for them to think about or give a challenge for them to tackle and report back to you when you return. If your child’s anxiety continues at a high level or you are worried about your child, it’s always OK to check with a professional to get some tips and advice. However, if your child’s anxiety is not constant and seems to come and go, it is probably natural and your child is dealing with things as needed.
Sometimes kids will act out a scene through play. This is them trying to figure things out. Often you can just watch and let the child play. Only get involved if he/she asks you to and then, you can be the person who helps, maintains order, or provides comfort.
Some children become more clingy than usual. Often this is not because of the actual events that happened, but because they sense that their loved ones are upset or because they’ve seen pictures on TV or on the internet that show adults who are upset, hurt or sad. Be aware of what your children are being exposed to –watch the news or check your phone out of eye/ear shot of your child. Offer your child more hugs and hands to hold as you can. Having a ‘lovey,’ a blanket or a stuffed animal, to provide comfort can also help. Letting your child sleep in flannel sheets or with a flannel blanket has also been said to have a calming effect when children experience trauma or loss.
Don’t worry if your child doesn’t show any interest or concern. This is big stuff and far away from their world of play. It does not mean that he/she will grow up not caring about others! It is much easier, especially if they feel safe, to remain in a child’s world. Children also tend to compartmentalize things, so they might talk about this seriously and be scared one moment and be outside playing ball the next. Be aware that your child may ask about this at a future date and time when you are least expecting it. They might hear or see something that makes them curious then.