When a terrorist attack occurs and is all over the news parents can often wonder what they should say to their children and how much they should say. Here we share some common questions parents have asked us about the subject and our answers.
Q: Should I tell my children about what’s happened?
A: Your child will find out about the incident whether you tell them or not, so it is better coming from you so that you know what they know, and can clear up any anxieties, worries or questions they may have. When talking with your child about it, it is best to be honest and matter-of-fact about what happened, but keep the explanation mental and emotional age appropriate and told in a way they understand. Keep personal judgements out of the conversation, talk calmly and sit at the child’s level while talking about the incident.
Q: Should I turn off the TV and radio so they can’t see or hear what’s happened?
A: When an attack occurs it is usually on the news a great deal. Ideally don’t have the TV just left on in rooms where the children can see and hear it without parental monitoring as this can be scary. It is best to limit the amount of TV or direct news like this that they see, so that what they are told is mental and emotional age appropriate and parent led. It can seem like it is common and feel like it must be happening everywhere when it is on TV a lot, so you may need to share with the child that this isn’t the case, it is on the news a lot because it is very rare, and things like this don’t happen very often.
Q: What do I say to my pre-school children?
A: Most pre-school age children won’t be aware of what has taken place, and are unlikely to encounter situations where they have questions about it unless they see it on TV at home. The important thing is for them to not be seeing it on the news, or hearing people talking about it because they may find it scary. If they do ask about it, then letting them know ‘a bad man was naughty and hurt some people’ is likely to be enough of an explanation, and if needed just reassuring them that they are okay and safe here.
Q: What do I say to my primary school aged children?
A: If the child is of school age they will hear about terrorism and the incident at school in the playground. It is better for the information and understanding to come from the parents rather than peers because you then know that they are getting an accurate understanding.
Q: Younger children may not understand, and depending on the age they may understand very little of what happened, and they may not understand about terrorism, or about death, so you may need to talk about both of these areas and help the child to understand. Although it is best to be matter-of-fact, that doesn’t mean giving all the gory details, just clear with the explanation.
It could be that the child needs to be told something like: “A man killed and hurt people.”
If the child is young this may be all they need to hear rather than an explanation about terrorism etc., but it is important to be there to listen to and answer any questions the child has. You will set the tone of the conversation by talking about it calmly and being comfortable to talk about it and listen to your child, but the child will guide what content needs sharing, they will ask the questions and you can answer these openly, while keeping language and content of answers age appropriate.
For some children, a way to explain it is how “sometimes people do things to hurt others to try to get their own way”, or “sometimes people get angry when they don’t get their own way, to try to make people do what they want.” and explain that this is kind of what this person has done.
Q: What do I say to my teen?
A: Most teens will already understand and are more likely to talk to their peers about this than with their parents, although showing you are there for them if they want to talk about it, and being comfortable with talking about it with them is helpful. They may have concerns or anxieties which need reassuring, and they may not understand certain bits or have questions that they would like to talk to you about. Most teens want to feel like you are talking to them as an equal and as an adult rather than talking down to them or dictating to them and telling them what they can’t do because of a terrorist attack. It is better to talk about safety awareness while out, and about reporting suspicious objects or behaviours of people, and giving them the details and guidance on how to do this, and sharing the importance of keeping in contact with you when they are out – not being checked up on and telephoned every five minutes, but just answering the phone or returning calls when contacted, and letting you know where they are, and if they will be late home for example.
Q: Should I ban my children from accessing the Internet or Social Media?
A: There is no need to ban your children’s access to the internet or social media, as for many teenagers this is now a large part of their life, but you do want to monitor their use and have open dialogue with them about how they can talk to you if they see anything that feels wrong or uncomfortable or upsetting to them. If they are under 13 they shouldn’t be on social media, and their internet access should be monitored, and under the age of about 10 a parent should be with them while they are using the internet.
Q: How should I respond when my child says they are not going to attend any public places or events in the future?
A: If they are scared to go places – like to the play park, you can address the thinking and help them to be calm and help them understand how rare these things are. You can help them to learn how to be mindful or risks and threats without dwelling on them, and help them to know what to do to ensure their safety – like reporting suspicious items or behaviours of others, but also understanding what makes it suspicious.
Q: My child is worried that this could happen to us and our family?
A: You want to make sure they don’t take terrorism personally. The terrorists don’t hate THEM and aren’t out to get THEM. If the child starts to get this idea in their mind they could get scared thinking that bad people want to hurt them, their family, or their friends personally.
You want to make sure that the terrorism is minimised and that lessons are taught. So you want to follow this by explaining that hurting yourself or others is wrong, and these people/this person did a bad thing which was wrong to do, and that people should be kind to each other. You want to help the child understand that it is rare for bad things like this to happen, and people are looking after those who were injured and people are looking after everyone to help keep them safe.
Q: When attacks happens, it makes me so scared about my child’s safety I don’t want to let them out of the house, what should I do?
A: Although it is natural to be scared and over protective on your child’s behalf you want to challenge this within yourself as a parent so that you don’t teach your child to be fearful. You want to be sensible about safety and explain to your child why you are making certain rules and requirements for them to follow – like having to tell you where they are going, who they are with, when they will be home, that they have a charged mobile phone with them which they need to answer or reply to messages on, and making it clear what the consequences are of not doing these things and why these consequences are in place – like if they aren’t home when expected and you try to contact them a few times and they don’t answer or reply then you will call their friends (if appropriate), and if you still can’t make contact with them then you will call the police to say you are worried for the safety of your child.
Q: How do I respond when my child asks why do the bad people want to hurt us?
A: The parent is the role-model for the child, so how they behave and talk about what has happened will be guiding the approach the child is learning about how they will handle things. Remain as calm and comfortable with talking about the subject, even if inside yourself you aren’t feeling that way. They should listen to the child’s thoughts and concerns and help them to develop solutions where appropriate, so if they are worrying, then help them to think of positive things, and to break down the worries into what they can control and what they can’t and to see logically how unlikely it is that they would be harmed. If they are panicking or anxious about it help them to learn to relax, perhaps helping them to breathe calmly and helping them address their concerns, and helping them feel supported and that you are available for them to talk to when they need to.
When responding to this you don’t want to talk about politics or religion because children are very good at generalising everything and process much of the world in black and white.
There are good people and bad people, people are out to get them, rather than it not being about them, it is just people out to cause harm to anyone. So if you mention politics or religion and say that someone did something based around a political or religious view the child may well generalise this and take it to mean that all people with that political or religious view are bad people, which obviously isn’t accurate.