Talking to children about terror attacks
Following the terror attacks in Manchester and London, Anita Cleare offers practical advice for discussing distressing news stories with children
Posted on: Tue 23-May-17 07:52:01
(63 comments )
As the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester have reminded us, we live in a world in which bad things happen. Many people, including children, were killed - and many more were injured. And in this rolling news digital era, graphic details about tragic events can spread far and fast.
Wrapping our children up in cotton wool and protecting them from everything bad in the world isn’t really an option. Teenagers learn about catastrophic events via social media news feeds alongside their friends’ latest selfies. Even if we prevent younger children hearing about tragic events directly, the playground grapevine can throw up a frightening and distorted version. Something as simple as a train station announcement about unaccompanied baggage can spark difficult questions from little ones about terrorism and who would want to kill them and why.
The best that parents can do is to ensure that distressing information is filtered in an age-appropriate way and help children develop the resilience and coping skills to bounce back quickly from difficult thoughts and feelings.
Talk about the issues
Take an interest in what children are reading, watching and listening to. Don’t give children unfettered access to the digital world – make sure you know the age guidelines for websites and social media and stick to them. Direct teenagers to quality news sites such as BBC Newsbeat and protect younger children from news bulletins that are aimed at adults.
It’s much better that children hear about distressing news events in an age-appropriate way from a trusted adult. Keep it simple. Say something like “I’m feeling a bit sad because I just heard about a bomb that exploded in such-and-such a place and lots of people died. I wanted to tell you about it in case you hear about it too.” They might ask lots of questions or they might not be interested. But they will know they can talk to you about it.
When children hear about tragic events, they often immediately link these events to their own lives and worry that something similar will happen to them or their family. Do reassure them that they are safe.
Always answer children’s questions. Questions tell you what your child is concerned about and help you gauge their level of understanding. With younger children, stick to short simple answers and then see what happens next. If they change the subject, you have answered their question. If they ask the same question again, they haven’t understood your answer (or maybe you haven’t understood their question). If they ask a follow up question, they want to know more so keep talking.
If you are knocked off balance by an unexpected question then you could gain some thinking time by asking a question back to see what they already know or where they heard about that issue.
Balance honesty with reassurance
When children hear about tragic events, they often immediately link these events to their own lives and worry that something similar will happen to them or their family. Do reassure them that they are safe. Emphasise that these kinds of events are very rare, that they don’t happen very often and that the vast majority of people never experience them. But don’t resort to outright lies. Telling children that something could never happen (when they can work out for themselves that’s not true) can result in them not trusting you or your reassurances. Instead, talk about all the reasons why it is very unlikely to happen and emphasise all the positive actions that are being taken to tackle the issue and to prevent it from happening again.
Sometimes children like to talk about what they would do if they were in that situation – for example, if a gunman came to their school or if a bomb went off. You might not like to think that way but for some children that’s a coping strategy, a way of turning their difficult thoughts into a problem to be solved and gaining a sense of control. Allow them to do that but don’t dwell on it, just get them involved in a distracting activity as soon as possible.
When children are upset
When children are distressed by news of a major event, it is important to help them work through their feelings. Don’t avoid talking about it and don’t dismiss their feelings as silly. Ask why they are upset, listen to their concerns and let them know that their feelings are ok. Then prompt them towards an activity that might make them feel better. Say something like, “I can see you are really sad. It’s natural to feel sad when bad things happen. Is there something you could do that might cheer you up?” Younger children can be guided into play, whereas older children might want to get involved in charities or fundraising as a way of making a difference.
By Anita Cleare
4yo DD saw me crying and asked me why.
I told her the truth.
I had a heart to heart with dd 12 this morning - we hugged and cried together. I wanted her to hear the news from me rather than from her mates on the way to school.
I told my 9 year old, who happened to be watching Ariana Grande in Sam And Cat, she was sad but doesn't really understand how horrific it is. I know she'd hear about it, read about it or see it on the news and I'd rather she heard it from me.
I spoke to my 9 year old DS this morning. I knew it would be talked about at school and I wanted him to hear it from me first.
I'm sure he will come home with questions tonight.
I didn't know what to say to my just turned 7yr old this morning.
I hope that older children's playground talk doesn't filter down too much until I can talk to him about it. If the school talk about it in assembly I trust the ht to get it right, but I do feel bad I waved him off with no input from me. Hard to know what to say when you can't follow it up with any real reassurance that they're safe. None of us are safe, which is the terrifying bit of terror...
I told dd2 (10), as they will talk about it at school. I kept it brief, I told her young people had been killed, it was at a concert, it was in this country but a long way from us. She asked, 'was it terrorists' and I said yes. Then we read this quote, "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." — Fred Rogers
I told mine (10 & 8) this morning, I couldn't let them go to school not knowing. And we watched Newsround. Heaven knows at they'll hear in the playground.
Thanks for this post - very useful. I talked to my 10yo ds about the bomb this morning. I cried.
I told my little boy that someone very bad did something very bad and people were hurt and had died. I'm not usually over affected by these attacks, I obv get upset etc but it doesn't affect my day. But this one I've not stopped crying all morning. I live close by to Manchester and its far too close to home.
Thank you, MN, for this post. It has helped me enormously just reading this today.
Please also point them to the newsround website.
My DDs friend hasn't turned up to school today and nobody has heard from her, I'm sick with worry!
I've just seen this on the BBC news round page, also very helpful. www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/13865002
Mine saw it on newsround and we live near to Manchester so it feels more awful still.
One useful thing I've read about talking to children about these horrors is to say that although there are some awful wicked people in the world, whenever something like this happens, far more people risk their own lives to help.
Thank you for posting. I'd also add thought that I think it's good advice to say to teenagers not to spend too much time watching news reports over and over again, it just create more anxiety IMO.
Little children I think shouldn't even see these news reports. That's just my opinion, my dds are in their twenties now and it's what I did with them. Some of their friends watched reports of the twin towers incident, over and over again.
Yes they need to know about these incidents and need to talk openly but it doesn't do children any good at all to see these images and hear very distressed people, over and over.
Told my 6 year old this morning as he saw me crying when I switched on my laptop and started reading the news. I've explained to him about terrorist attacks before, very vaguely, so he knows the basics. He was very upset but thankfully not too worried about it.
Thanks for posting this though, I was worried about whether I'd done the right thing or not.
I discussed with my DD (7) this morning, but opted not to discuss with my DS (5) unless he raises it. DD is able to read newspaper headlines, etc so I thought was more likely to hear about it. I told her that sometimes people are very angry and choose the wrong way to deal with that anger and that the police and the government are doing their best to ensure those people don't hurt others through their anger but sometimes they're not able to. I told her that most people love and respect each other and lots of people banded together to help those who were hurt last night, and that far more people want to help than hurt.
Good post. I told my DS (12) about this when he got up this morning as I know it will be talked about at school. It's hard to know what to say - I remember being very anxious about this when I was his age.
I haven't spoken to mine (10 and 7). I'm not sure what to say as we have tickets for a concert in Sheffield next month.
Thanks very much Mumsnet, your advice is enormously welcome and has had a calming effect on me just be reading it!
I had to speak to my children as DD was so excited to be going with me on Friday to see Ariana Grande. She just couldn't understand the enormity of it all.
I started talking to mine about things like this because they were coming home having heard utter nonsense from 'knowledgable' peers in the playground.
This morning, I just gave them the facts as we have them at the moment and we watched Newsround together. There will likely be more discussion and questions tonight following playground chit-chat which I will try and answer as honestly as possible. I'm keeping the 'grown-up' news switched off for now though.
I told mine this morning in case they heard talk at school.
I have to say that at the moment, neither of them are sensitive souls and don't seem to get upset at anything in the news that they hear from me. But perhaps they're a bit young (6 and 4) and it doesn't seem very real to them. I might get DS to start watching Newsround again.
DD (4) asked if a girl from nursery who had recently moved to Manchester had died so I had to reassure her that she hadn't, but apart from that she was fine.
DH just likes to remind us all that approximately 1,500 people die in road accidents each year, most of which might only make the local news.
Thank you for the post - I remembered a similar post after the recent London attacks so did speak to my DD(9) and DS(6) separately this morning. I was particularly concerned about DD as they will be talking about it at school (they are all Ariana grande mad and this feels so close to home for us). With DD I was a bit more detailed, keen for her to hear the facts from me, and her reaction/questions were similar to those described in the OP. (Got a lot of questions relating to how on earth he got a bomb, and practical stuff) With DS I was much briefer, depending on how much this is discussed at his school today, expect more questions later.
My key messages were to let DD know this is very rare, the attacker is mentally unbalanced.
It's so very sad and worrying. At least with posts from MN like this I feel like I'm doing the best I can to support my DC
Thanks for this mumsnet, I didn't speak to my DD (4 & 8) this morning because I really didn't know how to explain it. This will help enormously.
My heart aches for anyone waiting to her from the relatives who were there.
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