There’s no cookie-cutter approach for talking to your kids about the Paris attacks

By Bob Lichtenstein, PhD, Director, School Psychology PsyD Program at William James College December 14, 2015

Parents may be struggling with whether or how to talk with their children about the Paris attacks or other such terrifying situations. How can they best provide sensitive and appropriate explanations for the horror that has unfolded in the past week? Should parents bring the subject up or wait and see if their children have questions? How should influential adults such as teachers, counselors, faith leaders, and coaches handle conversations and questions about the attacks?

One of the most moving videos to come out of the aftermath of the Paris attacks is an interview conducted with a father and son by a French reporter. The young boy is asked if he understands what happened in Paris, and, with help from his father, he comes to realize the power of combatting violence with peace.

What is shocking and disturbing to adults may or may not have a similar impact on children. While we want children to be informed and concerned about what is happening in the world, we need to accept that their concerns are different, and often limited to the everyday influences on their lives. Children may have little care or concern about events that rock adults. Or, they may believe that acts of terrorism or natural disasters (forest fires, tornadoes, etc.) put them in immediate danger, which needs to be addressed and put in perspective. A young child may fixate on the terrifying details of an attack in Paris, and not understand that they are buffered by thousands of miles and a rather large ocean.

Children’s impressions are shaped by how near they perceive events to be, and how their community and people they know are affected. A prime example is how the Boston Marathon bombings were experienced by children here in Boston. Children may have watched the race themselves, and may have known people who raced or who were injured. Several days later, following a wild chase and gunfight, our entire city was in lockdown, with streets eerily quiet for an entire day amidst warnings that danger may be lurking outside. Some children heard gunfire in their neighborhood. Awareness of events and the level of alarm for children in Boston was very different than for children in California. 

In providing the advice below to parents and teachers about talking to children about the attacks, keep in mind that these suggestions should be tailored to individual situations and circumstances.

Understand that you’ll need to vary the message based on your audience. Children will have varied levels of knowledge and understanding about events. Messages to children should be adjusted depending on age and developmental level. It’s important to make clear to children that they are not in any immediate danger, but that their feelings of worry and concern are legitimate. 

Open up the conversation with care. The starting point for any conversation is to determine what children know and may be concerned about. This is best begun with open-ended questions such as “What have you been hearing about the Paris attacks?” and “What does it mean to you?” 

Take note of children’s reactions.
For children with histories of trauma or troubling experiences, hearing about the Paris attacks could trigger profound emotional reactions. When a child needs additional attention or support, parents or teachers may want to seek the help of a mental health professional at the child’s school or in the community. 

Teachers should seek guidance and support from colleagues and friends.
Even for teachers with years of experience, it can be difficult to know when to bring up topics like the Paris attacks. Teachers should observe the behavior and questions of their students, and seek input from colleagues and peers. It is important for teachers to take stock of their own feelings before beginning a conversation with their students. They may be especially shaken by events like an elementary school shooting or an attack in a city they know well, with the implicit association, “it could happen almost anywhere.” In talking with children, these feelings need to be tempered with the factual information that such events are extremely rare, and that there are many safeguards in place that protect us daily. 

Sound advice from a mental health professional or a dependable website can help parents and teachers communicate with children. An advisory from the National Association of School Psychologists, an excellent source of information, emphasizes that children will look to adults as models for their own behavior. Therefore, it is important for parents, teachers and community leaders to set a positive example for the children they interact with, helping them to feel safe while also instilling within them compassion for the victims.