The appalling attacks that occurred Friday in Paris leave all of us shaken and heartbroken. As we mourn for the victims and their families, along with the citizens of France, we also search for how best to help our children process the tragedy and the media blitz that follows. I’ve found guidance from several source and have tried to summarize the takeaways most meaningful to me.
Start with what they think they know. It’s best not to assume how much your child knows about the news. It’s likely that most children have heard something though. The most important next step is to ask them what questions they have. Let them lead the conversation. Be prepared to answer in a direct way. For elementary children, don’t answer questions they haven’t asked. The Child Mind Institute states that parents’ goal should be to avoid encouraging frightening fantasies. For middle and high school children, listen for hidden questions or fears.
Honor and observe their emotional health. Let your children know it’s ok to feel sad or upset. Remember that children don’t always verbalize their concerns and anxiety to us. We can monitor their emotions through their behavior, physical response (i.e. headaches), appetite and sleep. Often, children express their feelings through their play and art.
Identify ways to manage stress. You are the expert on your child. If he is feeling anxious, review with him some strategies that have helped him calm down in the past.
Reassure children they are safe. Don’t lie though. Children know when adults are untruthful. As the beloved author and illustrator Maurice Sendak once said,
“Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project onto the kids […] But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are.”
Instead of denying this event happened or isn’t sad, focus on the fact that the chances of them being personally affected by this type of violence is very low. It can also be helpful to explain to children what steps are being taken to keep them safe. We can talk about how our government, military, police officers, doctors, and emergency workers are working to ensure that these types of events don’t happen again.
Avoid over-exposure to news media. Like so many other things, kids are paying attention to your media consumption even when you’re not aware of it. The younger the child is, the more we want to protect them from constant replays of the tragic events. Very young children often cannot differentiate between TV images and their own reality. Very young children can also have difficulty understanding that the scary event is not happening over-and-over again, and is simply being replayed. Consider what you’re consuming on TV, the Internet, and radio when your children are present.
Earlier this year, a parent told me that her child was anxious to come to school in the wake of the several shootings that occurred on college campuses. This family had been mindful of TV news but suspected that NPR during the car ride to school caused the anxiety. I’m sure NPR delivered their news stories with facts and care, but this example illustrates how media exposure to terrifying news can have a sort of cumulative effect on a child’s resilience. Even if the last media report is relatively benign, if a child has consumed several stories in a short period, that last benign report might tip their emotional scales.
Older children may want to watch the news. One tip that healthychildren.org gives is to DVR the news, or watch the Internet video ahead of time so you can judge its content. This also allows you to pause and have a discussion about specific parts of the report.
Of course, avoid graphic images and descriptions. This can be difficult with older children who are using social media unsupervised so consider some of the tips we talked about in our digital parenting blog.
Ask for what you need. For example, the Erikson Institute recommends that if you’re at a restaurant and they are showing the news on TV, kindly ask the manager to turn the channel or move your table to a “safer” location.
Keep routines. At home, just like at school, routines can be very comforting, especially for anxious children. Of course, be flexible enough to respond to the needs that your child is presenting with. For example, kids may have a more difficult time than usual getting ready for bed or falling asleep.
Be careful not to stereotype. This applies to countries, ethnicities and religions. Children, even older ones, can easily generalize negative comments. Help children differentiate between fact and opinion. Remind them of the quote, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” When wanting to express an opinion, prompt children to start statements with “I believe” or “I think.”
Support children who want to do something more tangible. Older children in particular often want to take action. Sometimes this is a longer, more in-depth conversation. If so, be a good listener to their ideas and recommendations for making the world a safer place. Often, children want to do something that helps or memorializes the victims. These acts often provide children a sense of control during a vulnerable time, or a sense of closure.
Acknowledge the acts of humanity. Sometimes when we’re lost, we need to look toward our moral mentors. For us of a certain age, Mr. Rogers visited our living rooms each day with messages of peace and community. In thinking about Paris, I’m reminded of Mr. Fred Rogers wise words about scary news.
“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.”