When I worked in a school I used to meet with a group of children first thing every morning for our ‘Toast and Talk’ session. When there had been a tragedy in the news I knew the children would come in and want to talk about what they had seen and heard from their parents or on the TV.
These conversations can be tricky. When terrible events happen, such as the attacks in London, as adults our immediate instinct is to shield children from them. While this is perfectly natural, it may not always be the best approach. Saying 'There is nothing to worry about,” may teach them that you may not be the person to speak to about their fears. Let them talk it out and show that you understand. By having this dialogue, and allowing and encouraging your children to express their feelings, you can help them build healthy coping skills that will serve them well in the future
Here are some developmentally appropriate tips to help us in the conversations we will undoubtedly be having at home and at school tomorrow.
This is the only age which experts recommend trying to avoid the subject a little. Children younger than five tend to confuse facts with fears, so limiting access to news and watching what you say is advisable. Answer questions, but carefully, we don't have to give them more details than they ask for. For example a man hurt some people and the police are helping to make sure no body else gets hurt. The doctors are helping any body that has been hurt (explaining the steps that are being taken to keep us safe). Children may understand being hurt in terms of using kind hands.
Primary School children: Let them lead the way, find out what they actually know first. We do not need to delve into details like the exact number of people who died or that the attacks were coordinated, and try not to be overly dramatic or use frightening words. If you are upset and they notice, reassure them you will be fine but you are just sad at the news.
But don't avoid or disregard questions either; older children (6-11) are comforted by facts. Knowledge can be empowering for children of this age and this can help relieve anxiety.
It’s important they are not made to feel foolish, their fear is natural. Point out that the bad man has been caught by the police, that such attacks are very, very rare. Children at this age are egocentric and believe that any bad thing that happens in the world could happen to them. Let them know they are safe at school/home and that they are loved.
High School (11-13): Ask them if they've heard about the attacks and what they think. Psychologists suggest that being able to answer all their questions is not as key as just being around to help them absorb the news somewhere they feel safe.
Answer their questions in simple terms and reassure them that they are safe and that adults are working hard to prevent things like this from happening again. Children at this age see things in terms of good guys and bad guys. They might be interested in more of the details, but experts still advise keeping those to a minimum. And don't panic if they seem blasé or indifferent about the attacks; children process scary information differently. It’s important to convey that it is normal to express things in different ways—for example, a person may feel sad but not cry.
Older High School children: This age group are probably reading a lot about the events on social media, and hearing about it from their friends. It might be worth explaining in a bit more detail what we know and what we don't. These are complex issues and not likely to be solved soon, so they may as well be thinking about issues they will be facing in the years to come.
Experts also recommend that while it's great to radiate calm, reassurances that they won't ever get hurt or lose someone in a terrorist attack will not be believed. Speak to them in terms of probabilities. Talk to them about what to do in the case of an emergency, where they should go if they can't get home or who they should call if they can't reach you.
When the time comes, this is a good opportunity to talk to high school kids about violence, and its effects and other ways to solve problems or have your voice heard.
Finally, I have found it can also be helpful to point out the compassion witnessed during these events. That by far there are many, many more acts of kindness, of incredible bravery, of helping others. That human kind has the capacity to come together and support each other under these circumstances. This is truly inspirational and is not lost on children.
The No. 1 thing most experts agree on is that what is helpful is your time and attention. The best thing you can do as an adult is be available, Just spending time reassuring children that an event like this is unusual can make a huge difference.
Cred & Ref:
Belinda Luscombe, Time Magazine, Nov 2015
Harold Koplewicz, President of the Child Mind Institute
Paul Coleman, author of Finding Peace When Your Heart Is in Pieces