News rolled in from around the world on the weekend that there had been terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut.
Photos of empty streets, screaming faces and crying family members flashed across the television and computer screens.
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Amid the blue, white and red Facebook profile pictures and the shared stories that Paris wasn’t the only city suffering, there were questions about how to talk about such issues with children.
How were they interpreting these events? How should the topic be introduced to them? And what are the best ways we should talk to them about such things, if at all?
It’s a tough topic for parents and guardians to consider — whether to protect children from the atrocities around the world or to be honest and explain it to them instead.
Psychologist Sandy Rea appeared on Channel Nine’s weekend edition of Today and explained that there are a range things to keep in mind when talking about terrorism with children. We spoke to two mums about how they approach the issue in their household.
1. Minimise exposure
While Rea says that children over the age of 10 can usually handle images and graphic news coverage, younger children can become traumatised if they have too much exposure to this type of news. Minimise the exposure to graphic content, no matter how outgoing, smart or mature your child is.
At home: Mother of three Jacqueline says that she and her husband Aaron minimise their children’s exposure to watching the news about such events. “It’s a very complex issue, and one that I guess even as adults we don’t have a full understanding of what is going on, so we don’t talk about these things at home, and we don’t allow them to watch it on the news,” she says, adding that the kids are only told about news that directly affects them in their day-to-day lives.
2. Use real language
When you are talking about something like what happened in Paris or Beirut, be sure to use real language. Avoid using phrases like someone “went to heaven.” Rea says it’s important that they have a real understanding of what is going on.
At home: After asking her 8-year-old son what he thought terrorism was, Jacqueline was surprised to find out that he did have some idea. “I just asked Luke if he knows what terrorism is, and he said, ‘It’s when baddies come and attack,'” she said.
3. Set up activities that deal with the issue
Instead of pretending that nothing has happened or attempting to make children feel better by using avoidant language or actions, Rea says to think about taking part in activities that deal with the situation and help them — and you — move forward. Perhaps organise to send some flowers to a memorial, or have them draw a picture that would spread love and hope to people who have been affected.
At home: Kimberley, a mother of two boys, says she would rather introduce love than fear to her growing family. “I accept that terrorism exists in the world, but I choose not to allow it to exist in my family’s world, my kids’ in particular. I hope that doesn’t come across as selfish. I like to choose love, not fear.”
4. Remind your child that they are safe
Rea suggests saying things like “you are safe here with us” to children to reinforce that they are okay and secure. Kids, like all of us, need to feel safe and that they are being cared for, so remind your children of that so they don’t dwell on what is being portrayed by the media and worry about their own safety as a result.
At home: “I don’t want to even begin to introduce him to fear,” says Kimberley about her 4-year-old son. “I just don’t feel like it’s necessary. I am appreciative every single day for the feelings of safety and security that we get to live.”
5. Talk about your feelings
Especially with older children, it is important to discuss feelings about certain events rather than leave them to pent up, Dr. Daniel Hilliker, a pediatric psychologist with the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center, told CBS News. Rather than telling a child how they should or shouldn’t feel, ask them how it makes them feel and why. “Keep on asking for clarification or even reflecting back and saying, ‘This is what I’m hearing you say about it,'” he says.
At home: “You can’t avoid Mr. 4-year-old from overhearing and asking something like, ‘Is that the bad guys killing people?’ I’m really general about answering at this stage,” Kimberley says.