Talking to Kids about the Foiled Terrorist Attack
January 5, 2010 · Posted in Communication, K-5 Kids, Media, Mental Health, Parenting, Preschoolers, Pressure on Children · Permalink

6a00e5517d263f8833010536b401ba970b-800wiMany of the families we have worked with lived through 9/11 and therefore don’t have to start from scratch when it comes to explaining this frightening event. They have a framework to discuss terrorism in general, and this failed terrorist attack in particular. Those children already know the cold hard fact that bad things don’t just happen in remote places-things happen in America as well.

Parents with children who were born more recently have a new and difficult task added to their job description; talking to kids about terrorism. The first most important thing to remember is that it is almost impossible to shield children from hearing about it. If they have not already seen it on the news, heard grownups talk, or read headlines and pictures on the newspapers, then the first day back at school will change all that.

Parents are often surprised to learn that children as young as three and four years old will inevitably be exposed to some aspect of this news story.  Best for you to be their main source of information and reassurance rather than hearing bits and pieces or distortions of the truth when they are not with you. Look for an opening in their play. They could be crashing cars and “killing” someone, they could be drawing a picture of a plane. Or watch your child for symptoms of anxiety–nail biting, more agression than usual, worry about being alone.  It could start out as simple and straightforward for young children (3-6 years) as, “A bad man tried to hurt a plane and the people on it, but all the people jumped on him and the plane and all the people are safe. The man is in jail.” Talking with tweens and teenagers about the Taliban, suicide bombers and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will be more complicated.

Then be prepared for questions. For all children their first worries will be about themselves and their own family’s immediate safety.  Just like with 9/11, it will be important to focus on the heroic measures that real people took in combating the violence.  This is when you say, “All the police, and fire fighters and soldiers and President Obama are working very hard to make sure this does not happen again.” If you are actually flying in the next few days and your children are nervous (or you are!) point out all the security measures at the airport to check for dangerous materials or people on the plane. Try to keep a calm and positive demeanor.

No matter what your particular political beliefs are, this is not the time to undermine your child’s sense of confidence in our country’s leadership.   What you can tell them is that hurting people is wrong and that this man was caught and put in jail. That is reassuring to children. What is  not reassuring to your children is venting your own anger at either jihadists, or the incompetence of our own government.

The hard thing is that this terrorist attempt, bungled as it was, really reminds us that this violence is very likely to become more common here. The safety we felt as kids, at least about war here on our own soil, is over. We do have to remember that most children in the world live with fear and violence as an everyday reality.  We can help our children tolerate their fear if we make sure we are not in denial about how much they know and help them make sense of this frightening reality.

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