“What’s the Westminster attack?” my six-year-old son asked the morning after last week’s terrorist atrocity played on the screen and he tucked into his banana porridge. “Er, they’re still trying to figure out what happened,” I blustered handing him the iPad and telling him to go and watch unboxing videos on YouTube.
That was my strategy while I tried to figure out what to tell him and his twin sister about what had happened in the capital, which last week became victim to a terror attack.
Four people died and around 20 others were injured in the attack, which took place near British Parliament. The attacker ran over pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, attacked and killed a police officer with a knife, and was later shot and killed by security services.
The video footage and images weren’t easy for grown-ups to digest, let alone children, and the temptation for many parents, like me, was to switch off the TV in a bid to protect little ones from learning the truth.
But if parents don’t frame something like the Westminster attack for their children, they will either fill in the blanks themselves or put something together from nuggets of information gleaned from their friends in the playground. And there’s no guarantee then that what they conjure up will be age-appropriate or even accurate. So it’s worth talking to them first.
“It is good to talk to your children about events like yesterday’s attack for two main reasons,” says Emma Kenny, psychologist at Make Your Switch. “Firstly, if you don’t talk to them about it someone else will and they won’t necessarily know how to deal with that information. And secondly if you hide it from them they’ll believe its something really bad because you’re keeping secret. Children very often see silence as something sinister.”
So how do we begin to talk to our children about terrorism and other bad stuff in the news? Experts agree that being open and honest is the best approach to kick-start the conversation, but how do you explain something to children that most adults are still struggling to comprehend themselves?
We spoke to some experts about striking the balance between explaining that scary events do happen while still making your children feel safe.
Start an open conversation
Young children (seven and under) are likely to be put at ease with reassurance from their parents. “Younger children will believe you if you tell them that it’s ok,” advises Emma Kenny. “Help them to understand the fact that there are some bad people in the world, but they are rare and the overwhelming majority of people are fantastic. Reassure them that they’re completely safe and they have nothing to worry about.”
When it comes to slightly older kids who have access to the Internet, Emma Kenny says its important to raise the subject with them as they may not come to you about it. “Sit them down and have an open conversation about it. Start with acknowledging they will have seen what happened yesterday and ask them how they’re feeling about it. Communication helps them to discuss their emotions and calibrate the way they feel about the world.”
Offer them examples
Children can understand things better if you show them examples. “Ask them to think about all the days in their life, then ask how many terror attacks have they been involved in? They’ll say none and that’s exactly it, none. Around the world there are terror attacks but that doesn’t make it real for you,” says Emma. “Remind them that you only know about this because you hear about it. And in the images they’ve seen point out that there are far more good people running to help. Those kind of things are what we should be telling our kids to help them realise that our communities are safe.”
Consider your own reactions
Children are perceptive and are likely to pick up on your emotions, so try to be mindful of your own reactions to the news. “Your kids will look to the way you handle the news to determine their own approach. If you stay calm and rational, they will, too,” advises Charlotte Vaughan. Emma Kenny agrees. “Try not to show any emotions like panic or anxiety because they will learn them from you. So even if you do feel a bit scared for your safety don’t demonstrate it to them.”
Ask them how they’re feeling
Don’t assume you know how they feel. Instead, get at their understanding of what happened. “No matter how old your kids are, threatening or upsetting news can affect them emotionally,” explains Charlotte Vaughan Parenting Editor of MyFamilyClub. “Many can feel worried, frightened, angry, or even guilty. And these anxious feelings can last long after the news event is over.”
“Talking about the news can be tricky – you want your children to have a general understanding of what’s going on in the world, but you don’t want to bombard him/her with information.”
Answer their questions
Emma Kenny advises that parents respond to children’s questions honestly and pragmatically. “Yes there has been an attack and people did die, or mummies and daddies have been killed. The temptation might be to hide it, but it’s ok to talk about that. If you don’t know how to answer their questions, say that’s a really good question I’ll have a think on that and look up some other people’s ideas on it. Then look it up together.”
“The immediate issue when you say fear or terror is high anxiety,” says Emma Kenny. “It’s natural, it protects you. Your children need lots of reassurance to believe that you trust society so that they will too.”
Make your world small
“Sit together over a meal and share positive experiences,” advises Emma Kenny. “Talk about an upcoming holiday. Remind them of some amazing things you’ve done together as a family. Distract them from the information and make the world a fantastic place for them again because you’re in control of that.”
Keep the conversation going
For some parents this will be the first time they’ve tackled a tricky subject like this, so it’s important to keep checking in and asking them how they’re feeling. “Kids are very resilient. You might assume they’re feeling scared but they might not be,” says Emma Kenny. “My kids were nervous about me being in London today and I just told them I totally understand their fear but I wasn’t going to let my own fear remove the enjoyment of my career. I said to my son that sometimes tragedy and horrible trauma is there to remind you of something blessed, your family. Its about reframing things. Which is when they realise that bad things happen but their life carries on normally and they’re able to emotionally recognise that they don’t have to worry.”
Remind them that they’re safe at home
Emma Kenny says that during times like this it’s good to remind children that home is their haven. “Remind them that home is the safest place in the world and that no bad things can happen here. Reassure them that they don’t ever have to worry about anything as soon as they walk through the door. We might not be able to control the external world but we can control our internal parameters,” she says.
Charlotte Vaughan suggests encouraging children to take action can be a way of helping them move forward. “Depending on the issue and kids’ ages, families can find ways to help those affected by the news,” she says. “Kids can write postcards to politicians expressing their opinions; families can attend meetings or protests; kids can help assemble care packages or donate a portion of their allowance to a rescue/humanitarian effort.”
Utilise outside sources
For any parents still worried about how to talk to their children Mark Bentley from the Safeguarding Board at the London Grid for Learning suggests taking a look a the organisation’s open-access Counter-Extremism resource which contains modules on the far-right as well as Islamist extremism and addresses themes such as developing a counter-narrative to extremists and online safety.
So this afternoon when the twins come home from school, I’ll be sitting them down and talking to them about what’s happened. It won’t be an easy conversation but it’s a necessary one.
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