I have no words for the tragedy that has unfolded in Paris tonight. I wish there were words of wisdom or comfort or insight I could offer, but you know as well as I that no such words exist. As Eleanor and I stood in her living room, staring at the TV, we shared that feeling of total helplessness that sets in when the world makes no sense and there is nothing you can do about it. Her children played in the next room and I couldn’t help but think of the children who are already asking questions about the events in Paris and about those who soon will be. Devastating incidents like this make us acutely aware that parenting doesn’t come with a handbook. We know our children need us to guide and support them, but it is hard to know what the right things are to say or do.
So in this moment, when there is nothing else we can do, we hope these tips may help in talking to kids about the Paris attacks.
- Be aware of your own feelings. As our wonderful grief-friend Sarah advised in this post about talking to kids about Robin Williams’ suicide, when you are going to talk to your child about a difficult topic you need to be aware of your own feelings. Events like this bring up a range of complex emotions including anger, guilt, fear, helplessness, sadness and many more. It is important to spend some time thinking about what emotions this situation is bringing up for you and take some time to breathe and calm down. Your presence and affect will have an impact on your child, so make sure you are in the best mental space possible to speak with them.
- Let them lead the conversation. You may have to be the one to open the door, but it is important you let your child guide the discussion. Encourage them to share what they have heard, ask any questions they have, and talk about their concerns and anxieties. Make sure they know no questions are off limits and that it is important to talk about their feelings about what is happening. This will allow you to provide as much information as they want to know without going beyond their needs and limits.
- Don’t assume silence means they don’t know what is going on. Though many kids will feel comfortable talking and asking questions, some will not. It may be tempting to think this silence means your child has not been exposed to what is going on. Remember, it may just mean they do not feel comfortable talking about it or asking questions. It is important to let your child know that you are there to talk about anything. If it seems they truly are not aware of or concerned by the incident it is not necessary that you discuss it with them, but continue to reassess this as your child may learn of the event days later and concerns may arise.
- Be aware of the TV, radio and internet. When events like this happen we can get quickly sucked in to the 24 hour news cycle. As I write this CNN has been running in the background for hours and twitter is feeding me constant headlines. This intense exposure can take a toll on adults and children alike, so making a plan to limit exposure is crucial. Set a TV/internet/social media time limit and stick to it. Remember that kids are often paying attention, even when you don’t think they are, so be aware. Also keep in mind that even when you turn off the TV your kids will still be getting information from the internet, social media, friends. etc that can bring up more questions, concerns and anxieties.
- Identify specific anxieties. It is common for events like this to bring about fears and anxieties for children. It is important to identify exactly what those fears are and address them directly. Start by normalizing that a child is scared, then address the specific concerns. Though it can be tempting to say something overly positive, like “don’t worry nothing will ever happen to you/me/etc”, children will often know when you are providing false or unrealistic assurances.
- Be clear about what is being done to keep everyone safe. This may include explaining that you are doing everything possible to keep your child safe and also that the police are working to keep Paris safe and the police here are working to keep us safe.
- Keep in mind your child’s age and comprehension. Keep the conversation at an appropriate developmental level for your child. Not sure what that looks like? Check out this post on the understanding of children at different developmental stages.
- Manage the details. It is important that having an honest conversation with children, especially young children, doesn’t exacerbate their anxiety or fear around the trauma. Do not share more details than they already know or need to know.
- Stress that these events are extremely rare. It is important your child knows the rarity of events like this one. Reinforce that they are safe and this is no way a common or expected situation.
- Identify ways to calm down. You know your child best, so you will know what helps calm them when they are anxious or upset. Spend some time reminding your child of what those things are. You may bring up other times in the past when they have been scared or upset and what they did to feel better. Breathe, draw, read, write, play, sing or do whatever else may help your child self-soothe.
- Spend time together and stick to routine. When children area feeling anxious about safety spending time together is important. Routine can help children feel safe. Children may be more clingy or needy than usual, spending this time with them can reinforce that you are there for them.
- Don’t forget the words of Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”- Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers).