How do you talk to your kids about terrorist attacks?

If our kids are watching the news about recent events in London, over-hearing adults talking or simply asking questions about terrorist attacks, what on earth should we tell them?

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Following the horrific terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, even if you don’t let your children watch the news or you try not to discuss such things in front of the kids, they’ll still know something terrible has happened, thanks to their friends at school, Facebook or, indeed, simply the sombre mood surrounding us.

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Don’t just take our word for it – after the Paris attacks in 2016, ChildLine reported they had more than 100 calls – some from children as young as nine – sharing their fears that they might be part of a terrorist attack.

In the wake of these incidents, we as parents are now faced with some particularly challenging moments. One mum, who was bringing her 9-year-old daughter in to London from Kingston on the day of the Paris attacks, found the tube journey from Wimbledon to Leicester Square heart-breaking.

“I’d been talking on my mobile to my mum about the terrorist attacks and wondering aloud whether we should go into London at all before we got on the tube. After the mad scrum of getting on the packed tube, I ended up sitting across from my daughter as opposed to right next to her, and I watched as her face got redder, tears silently streaming down her cheeks.

“I managed to swap seats with the woman next to her and when I asked her what was wrong, she said quietly, barely audible over the deafening clatter and clang: ‘I don’t like sitting next to strangers – especially when they might be terrorists. What if they have a bomb and kill us?’

“All I could do was hug her tightly to me, try to soothe her by shooshing her gently, all the while telling her it was incredibly unlikely London would be targeted by terrorists that day and she was safe with me. But to tell the truth, I was a bit scared, too.

“Luckily, some ice cream cheered us up when we re-surfaced into the street at Leicester Square, but it really got me thinking. I’d just lied to her, really, about being safe with me – and what on earth will I say to her next time? And how do I treat her like the smart, young person she is and keep her in the loop about the world without scaring her senseless?”

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So what exactly is appropriate for each age?

Let’s face it, it’s hard enough as an adult trying to get to grips with devastating situations like terrorist attacks, so how do we expect our kids to get their heads round something so complex and horrific? Do we tell them exactly what’s happening (as if we know!) or do we spare them the details and try to keep them in the dark in an attempt to make them feel safe? And is that even possible?

For 0-5 year olds

Child psychologist Emma Citron says: “There’s really no need to tell the little ones – and watching the news will only alarm them. But if they do ask questions, just stick to basic facts. Try something like ‘Some very bad people have done something terrible, but we’re working on a way to fix things.’ Young kids pick up all sorts of ideas from what’s going on around them, but their levels of understanding are very child-like – so they know something big and bad is going on, but they really don’t know what. But you know your own child and how astute they are, so it’s all about trying to reassure them.” 

6-10 year olds

“If you have a very literal child,” Emma says, “just stick to the facts. You will probably intuitively feel how much your child can handle. And emphasise the positives, rather than dwelling on the negatives. Say ‘Yes, there was an awful shooting, but lots of people escaped and the doctors have been so amazing, they’ve managed to save many people’s lives.’ And maybe encourage your children to watch Newsround with you, so you can talk about it together.”  

11 years old and up

Emma says horrifying world events can often spark a more general conversation with older kids about psychological health and well-being as well as piquing their social conscience. 

“What you say depends on the maturity level and nature of your child. If they ask why people do these things, say you don’t really know. Be honest and say we wish we did know exactly why people are capable of doing such terrible things, but we think it might have something to do with a kind of brainwashing. That’s why, you say, it’s important to stay away from bad influences on the internet. This can then broaden out into a discussion about issues closer to home. Again, accentuate the positives and say: ‘Yes, horrible things do sometimes happen, but we will find a solution and this will lead to a better world for all of us.'”

Consultant Clinical Child Psychologist David Trickey, who appeared on the BBC’s Newsround in 2010, in the wake of the shootings in Cumbria, says there are 5 main things we should do after terrifying world events.  

1. Try to minimise exposure to media coverage

“Don’t ban children from watching TV,” he says. “They might think you’re keeping something from them and go behind your back or imagine it’s worse that it actually is. TV coverage is often as spectacular as possible – which means it might be very frightening. Some research shows that people who watch TV coverage repeatedly are more likely to be traumatised by events.”

2. Help them develop an age-appropriate “useful and truthful” account of events

It’s tough, this one – obviously a 3 year old doesn’t need to know much. But for your 6 year olds and up? David Trickey says: “Tell them what actually happened. Depending on the age of the children, you will probably include some information about why and how, but will also help them to realise just how safe they are, rather than how unsafe that place was on that occasion. 

“Children and young people need a truthful explanation that makes sense of the main facts, which is appropriate for their age. Even younger children can really benefit from being given a description and explanation of what happened because it helps the child to make sense of the upsetting event and to reduce some of the unpleasant feelings such as fear, anger and sadness.”

3. Talk through the events

This can help to correct misunderstandings as it’s common for kids to get confused about important facts. You can help to avoid this by being clear and open.

Mr Trickey says: “Encourage children to talk about the event and how they feel about it. Encourage them to ask questions – because if we don’t encourage them to ask, they might be left without answers, and then they might fill in the gaps themselves.”

4. Try to make things as normal as possible 

Everyone feels safer when they know what to expect. A frightening event often makes people unsure of what’s coming. But you can help children and young people feel safer sooner, by sticking to their normal routines as much as possible, and continuing with their normal activities when possible. 

But what about the at-home, in-situ specialists (aka you!) – what do you say to your kids when the unthinkable happens? What did you say to your kids about the latest terrorist attacks? And how do you try to make your kids feel safe? Please let us know in the comments below…

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