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How to talk to kids about tragedies such as the Paris attacks

How to talk to kids about tragedies such as the Paris attacks
By Marney Carmichael
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How can we as parents or elders best communicate to children about terrorism and other senseless tragedies?


“That is an airplane, this is a cage for the bad guys and this is Paris burning.”

The past two nights my 4.5-year-old son has – on his own – drawn images of the attacks in Paris.

He seems proud when he shows me the pictures he put on the fridge as he points to the trap he set for the “bad guys”. He does not seem sad. As a therapist friend of mine said, “It shows that he’s processing it and coming up with “solutions”.”

Whether via news broadcasts, social media, at school or at home, many children have been exposed to news about terrorism, such as the most recent attacks in Paris. In Lyon, France, where we live, my two children know that we are “at war”. Yesterday, while reading a newspaper my seven-year-old daughter simply stated: “the word terror is in terrorism”.

The Monday after the events in Paris both of our children explained at dinner how the victims were commemorated at their schools. My son, in equivalent to Junior Kindergarten, said that the “big kids” at his school laid candles in the play area. In my daughter’s Grade 2 class, at another school, the teacher spoke to the children about what happened and gave each child in the class the opportunity to express their feelings. It hit home to our family as our neighbour and his eldest son were in Stade de France at the time of the suicide bombings outside.

Le Petit Quotidien, a French daily newspaper for children aged six to ten, has been writing a lot about the Paris attacks and how children can digest the news. One November headline read: After the Paris attacks…“Advice from a specialist to be stronger than fear.” The article by a child psychiatrist spoke about not letting fear get in the way of daily life. The advice was to try to understand your fear, express it and realise that it is normal to be afraid but to not stop living your life.

How can we as parents or elders best communicate to children about terrorism and other senseless tragedies?

•Avoid bad news and disturbing videos if possible. “I think introducing it to them is not a great idea if they’ve not had any exposure or awareness to it,” Dr. Daniel Hilliker, a pediatric psychologist with the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center, told CBS News. However, if you are certain they are going to hear about it in the playground so to speak, it’s better to be honest. (Every parent I spoke to at the bus stop the weekend after the events in Paris had informed their child about it.)

•Talk about what happened, but realise that the perspective children have and how they respond will vary with age. Perhaps start the conversation by asking what they have heard. Most young children don’t require an in-depth explanation, whereas older children may pose more questions.

•Talk about how to deal with their feelings. Let them express themselves via drawing or writing. This may happen naturally as it did with my son. If they want to re-enact the story, follow it through until “everyone is safe” some experts say.

• Listen well and normalise their feelings. Pay attention to how, as my UK therapist friend says, children “process” their emotions.

•Focus on the positive. This is exactly what a French father did when attempting to explain the Paris attacks to his young son. “There’s bad guys Daddy, there’s bad guys everywhere.” “It’s OK, his father calmly replied, “they might have guns but we have flowers.” The interview by Le Petit Journal in France touched millions worldwide. The boy and his father were later invited to the popular French TV show where the father said they spoke with “emotion and their hearts”.

“On a parlé sous le coup de l’émotion. On a parlé avec notre cœur.”

— Le Petit Journal (@LPJofficiel) 20 Novembre 2015

•Keep up a healthy, normal routine. Kids need stability in chaotic times.

•Watch the news with older children, discuss important issues and hear out their thoughts and feelings.

•Use humour, but correct inappropriate use of it. Try to teach children that there is a time and a place for this. Belgian residents sought out humour during the recent government imposed lockdown of the city. When the police asked the public not to ‘tweet’ about any police action in their neighbourhoods they turned to their cats for social media fun.

Post cat pics, not police movements

— Yves-Alexandre (@yvesalexandre) November 22, 2015

•Correct misconceptions. ‘Le Petit Quotidien’ interviewed Muslim children in France to see how they are feeling and being treated post Paris attacks.
•But most of all, remind children that the majority of people in life are GOOD.

The day my daughter’s class talked about the attacks she happened to be wearing a shirt my husband made for her birthday that said ‘I have confidence’. The teacher asked her to join him at the front of the class and explained to his students that all of them should have confidence and to not be afraid to live their lives to their fullest. I am sure this gesture is something that she will never forget.
Picture: Keanu Bentchicou

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