Acknowledge what has happened, and say lots of people died as a result of a really bad incident. (Photo: Eddie Mulholland/The Telegraph)

Paris attacks: How to explain the horror to children

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(Original article: Sally Peck, The Telegraph, Nov. 17, 2015)

As parents, there is a constant temptation to shield our children from bad news. But sometimes, and in particular with acts of terrorism, bad news is unavoidable – it’s in on television, it’s on social media, and it’s on our minds.

Like most people, I’ve been carefully following the news from Paris. My family has close ties to France, and my children’s ears perked up when news of the attacks came on the radio.

How to talk to children

For guidance on how to talk to my children about the attacks in Paris, I rang Gemma Allen, a senior bereavement counsellor at Winston’s Wish, Britain’s leading charity for bereaved children, who offers the following tips for talking to children about terrorist attacks.

Here’s what she told me:

Language matters: For children of all ages, the most important thing is to reassure them that they are safe. Don’t get into the political context with primary-aged children. That may come up in conversation with older children, but the importance at any age is offering the reassurance that they are safe.

For pre-school children, use concrete language: don’t say “This person went to sleep” or “We’ve lost that person” – because that could instil fear or anxiety in that child about going to sleep. And what does lost mean? They’re lost at the shops? Be accurate and mindful of the impact of your language.

Age-appropriate conversations: For pre-school, think about how much exposure they’ve had. Maybe they’ve overheard the news, so the conversation could be quite brief: acknowledge what has happened, and say that lots of people have died as a result of a really bad incident. You can say that we don’t know why this has happened.

As the parent or teacher or carer, the most important part is to offer reassurance: this is very unusual, there are lots of safety checks in place to protect us. Use age-appropriate language, and be aware of what your child understands: do they really know what “died” means? It’s usually not until the age of 5 or 6 that children understand that death is permanent.

With primary school, the majority will understand what “dead” means. So it may be that you can add details – you may be able to sit down and watch the 6 o’clock news together.

The perpetrators: You should talk about a bad action or behaviour – not bad people. Ms Allen explains: “A lot of our work is with families bereaved through murder. With children, you must be careful about the language: people aren’t bad – it’s something bad that they’ve done – this helps prevent anxiety in children, and fears that ‘bad people’ are coming to get them.”

Social media awareness: Secondary school aged children will have come across news about the Paris attacks already on social media. Remind them that some of the things they have read there may be incorrect. Have a conversation with your child about what they think has happened. Talk about the images they’ve seen – these can be more powerful than words. If they see an image, and haven’t had a conversation with someone they trust, they will build up these images something that is so big that it’s unmanageable for them; you don’t want a child to start fantasising that someone is going to come after them.

Promote peace: As I explained to my children, who are primary and pre-school age, the facts of what had happened, I tried to shift their focus towards the coming together of the people of Paris, and the work people around the world to keep everyone safe.

Shield them: From certain politicians’ dangerous reactions – for example, by sayings that terrorists were carrying out “an organised attempt to destroy Western civilisation,” Jeb Bush granted these men more power than they have. This hysteria is exactly what the people carrying out these acts want. And it is exactly this sort of hysteria that we, as parents, need to protect our children from.

Instead, this is the sentiment we need to spread: that the majority of the world wants peace. As Fred Rogers, the American children’s television host and one of my childhood heroes, was fond of saying, “Whenever there is a catastrophe, always look for the helpers – because if you look for the helpers, then you’ll know there’s hope.”

I used Mr Rogers’ advice as a guide for my family over the last few days, and pointed out the ambulance workers, the doctors, the security workers visible in scenes from Paris who were helping people to be safe.

Like many, I was moved by the man who played John Lennon’s Imagine on a piano in Paris, and I showed my children that video.

This led, in my house, to a long discussion of anti-war songs, and songs calling for peace. Kumbaya is already part of my children’s repertoire, but we’ve also downloaded a series of songs I remember from my childhood – Peter, Paul and Mary singing Down by the Riverside, Joan Baez singingWaltzing Matilda, Mahalia Jackson singing We shall Overcome.

My children are young, they like to sing, and using this atrocity to focus our family’s energies on contemplating peace has helped them, and me, to process the senseless Paris attacks.

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