With the horrific acts happening around the world — attacks in France and Beirut, and killings in Kenya — your children may be aware that something ugly is going on. Talking about things that scare them is actually therapeutic, so ignoring it and hoping it goes away is the wrong approach.
As difficult as it is to see the innocence fade in our children, it is our responsibility as parents to comfort them and do what we can to help them understand.
Ellen Sturm Niz of Parents.com published an article outlining best practices for addressing this with your kids.
The first thing to do is find out what your kids know. Don’t dive into the conversation assuming they’ve heard it all. The last thing you want to do is overshare.
Probe them by asking general questions. Marriage and family specialist Susan Stiffelman suggests, “You may have heard something really sad happened in France, and I wanted to know what you had heard about that.”
By asking questions first, you allow your children to guide the discussion.
Keep it Age Appropriate
The talk you have with a 7-year old will be far different from one you have with a 4-year old. It is important to keep your words at a level your child can comprehend so you are effective and you don’t overwhelm them.
Child expert Denise Daniels tells Parents.com that you could break the explanation down into “bad guys” and “good guys” for a 4-year old, for example.
“You can say, ‘Yes, there were some bad people, and they hurt some people because they were very angry, and we know’ — and this is the teachable moment — ‘that it’s never okay to hurt ourselves or to hurt somebody else because we’re feeling angry.’ Keep it very simple.” – Daniels to Parents.com
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Don’t make the conversation a one-off. Let your child know that you are available to discuss these scary things anytime. Not only will it alleviate fear, but it will ensure you address any misinformation they pick up from peers, overhearing conversations or news media.
While you are addressing current events, you can teach your children coping strategies they can use throughout their lives. By naming their feelings and opening up, they will learn how to talk about things that are bothering them.
We are far removed from the blind fear of being children and can forget how important reassurance is. As much as we want to be honest with our kids, sometimes the best thing to do is tell them these situations are rare.
As an adolescent, my school went out of its way to educate parents and kids about gangs. I was terrified that a gang was going to find me and hurt me. When I mentioned this to my mom, she whisked away my fear by telling me the goal of education was to keep me from seeking out a gang, not the other way around. I instantly felt a wash of relief.
Our kids don’t have the perspective we have as adults, so it is our job to take away the burden of worrying about things far out of their control.
Model Good Coping Skills
This can be a tough one. While you want to show your kids you are handling things, you also don’t want to fake it.
“Being disingenuous can actually make kids more unsettled, because they can sense when words don’t line up with feelings,” writes Niz. “Instead, say that while you’re frightened and sad, you’re also comforted by knowing how many people are working hard to keep us safe.”
The last thing we want to feel is out of control, and our kids feel the same way. Help your kids focus on the areas of their lives they practice safety.
“For older kids, talk about ways they can get involved, like writing notes of support to kids in the country that was attacked or holding a bake sale to raise money for an aid organization,” writes Niz.
The more you talk about and work through your child’s insecurity, the less anxiety they will feel.