Televised reports of bombings, kidnappings and killings shake us to the core. And the children are watching. While we must monitor their access to the news (young children should not be allowed to watch graphic violence), current events can be an opportunity to teach important lessons and ease panic and fear.
Exposure to the news can lead to discussions about it, and an introduction to politics, human rights, and negotiation. Asking a child what they think is a good start. Open-ended questions may provide extra clues about their understanding and distress. Sensitive children may need more support and reassurance, especially if they have seen something that may have been graphic or disturbing. Most children want to know that they and their loved ones are safe. They can be informed that police officers, armed forces, the president, and even airport security exist to keep us safe. Rules at school and laws in the community also help keep order.
Children may hesitate to ask questions because they fear seeming silly or uninformed, especially middle or high school-aged kids. Allow them to ask questions and express their fears. Some respond to events with anger or by developing hateful ideas. Parents must recognize opportunities not only to reduce their child’s anxiety but to teach about issues that may be related to terrorism and war.
Deciding what and how to teach depends on the child’s age and their reactions to the news. Signs of distress can include problems with sleeping, nightmares, increased irritability or frequent and unusually gruesome play scenarios or cruelty. (This does not include war play or cops and robbers; this sort of play can help kids cope.) Children of deployed military personnel or those with loved ones in at-risk countries are at highest risk for these reactions.
In addition to tuning into the child’s reactions and beliefs, parents must also be self aware and informed about facts. It’s a good idea to resist lecturing or making hateful statements that are short sighted. Without doubt, terrorism is an evil act that is wrong; however, factors that drive people to these acts are complex. Religion, race and economics are involved, but none of these factors explains why some people are driven to do evil things. While patriotism is fine, parents should resist dogmatic statements. When unsure about something, it’s usually best to say, “I don’t know why.”
While some parents hesitate to discuss potentially fearful subjects with their children, young children may imagine things that are even scarier than the truth. Providing some facts about grown-up issues provides reassurance and gives them permission to ask questions.
Routines, structure and parent-child play time are the most important sources of security for young children. Spiritual families may pray or meditate for peace; other families may volunteer together. Tweens and teenagers may have fears of inheriting world problems as adults. Directing them to readings about history may provide them with ways of thinking about the world we live in. Teens also like to hear that their generation may be more effective in resolving problems; it gives them hope for the future that is empowering.
All children rely on their parents to set the tone for rational response rather than irrational reactions. Parents who may be angry are still capable of calm discussion and thought about evil in the world. Being present to one’s own thinking about current events while tuning into their child’s reactions and teaching understanding and empowerment is where peace making begins.
by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.