How to talk to children about news events
The title of the piece comes from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Autobiographical they cover her childhood in the American west, as the daughter of adventurous parents with a desire to see what lies over the next hill. In one scene a visitor is eager to discuss lurid tales of atrocities by Native Americans, and Laura’s mother quietens here with the phrase “little pitchers have big ears”. A reminder children are listening, so change the subject please.
In our multi media 24 hour news world we are far less able to protect our children from news events and wild speculation. Many will have access to social media, and when a horror such as the attack on Paris occurs the news cycle becomes dominated by it, replaying death and destruction on a loop. At times the news seems to resemble the newest video game, but one without a pause button.
Closing their ears.
One, traditional approach to children at times like this is to attempt to prevent them learning anything, “protecting their innocence”. Whilst for the youngest of children this is possible, once they are of school age, even if you chose to avoid all news media personally, you cannot (or perhaps should not) police every conversation they have with friends. Given that very few families live on a high prairie with no internet, television, neighbours, schools or newspapers completely protecting children from terrible events is next to impossible today. School yard rumours, half understood stories, speculation and rumour can be far more frightening, especially for older primary school children than the actual events.
As you are unlikely to be able to prevent a child hearing of events such as the Paris attacks, even if you want to, its important that you answer the questions they do have. Often these will be about basic facts, such as “Where is Paris?” This is not a sign of callousness on a child’s part. Depending on age their ability to understand what death actually is varies hugely. It is not unusual for children under the age of 7 to struggle to comprehend the finality of death. It is therefore important not to try to get what is deemed to be an appropriate adult response from a child, especially a younger one. Answer all questions as factually, and unemotionally as possible. Try not to labour how “terrible” or “shocking” such events are. A child’s theory of mind is still very egocentric, if something is terrible, it is because it affects them, or those close to them. As adults we may weep for strangers, but as children, we are quite rightly, still learning how the world is interconnected.
What about Mummy/Nana/Cousin Bill?
As children struggle to learn their place in the world, they also struggle with other people’s. Just as the summer holidays may seem an eternity of time when 8 and all to brief when 16 their perspective expands with their knowledge and experience. When something like 9/11 or the Paris Attacks happens young children may become quite fearful. They do not know how far away New York or Paris is, simply that bad things have happened to people “out there”. Under sevens may exhibit separation anxiety you believed they had long grown out of, and older children worry about friends and family members they know travel a lot, or work abroad.
Again, factual calm discussion can help more than anything. If a small child seems distressed you’re going to work, or on a trip, explain, in an age appropriate way, where you are going. Make use, if you can, of the internet, show them pictures, safe images to replace any more frightening ones they may have inadvertently seen. It is much easier with older children to have this discussion, use maps if need be. It may seem obvious to you that where you are going is nowhere near where a terrorist attack has happened, but a child’s sense of distance, like their sense of time, is based on their own experience.
If you have family or friends in an affected area, it is very important not to lie. Do not promise they are safe if you do not know they are. Instead focus on how first responders (people the children know and trust) will be doing their best to help/find the person. Taking back a lie you have told a child, even to protect them, is impossible, and children always remember lies.
As adults struggle to comprehend the horror of last nights events in Paris, as we ask why, it is no surprise children will turn to the adults in their lives and demand to know why this has happened. With older children you may be able to talk about history, world events, provide some context. With younger (and older) it is OK to say “I don’t know”. It may seem strange, a child is asking for a reason, and as parents we are seen as the fount of all knowledge. However in this period of speculation and ongoing investigation saying simply that we don’t know why this happens is not only honest, it avoids blaming one group or another. A child’s attitudes are formed by your attitudes, your prejudices become theirs. A chance word, or a blaming of someone in anger or sorrow can lead to them forming lifelong attitudes, ones you never intended in calmer moments to impart.
Am I Safe?
From the moment you bring that small, vulnerable, completely reliant bundle home from the hospital your thoughts go to keeping them safe. Many a new parent has been kept awake when sleep is most needed by the shock of this awesome responsibility. Wanting to hold your child and keep them protected from the worlds dangers is completely natural. It can seem impossible when such senseless violence occurs. So it is perhaps important to remind yourself that the news does go into overdrive when these things happen. They are terrible, and shocking, but they are rare. Explain, in age appropriate language, that you will do all you can to keep your children safe, and how rare attacks such as this are. Allow them to express their fears, agree it is scary, acknowledge and talk about how they feel. Giving a child the space to say how they feel is one of the greatest gifts we as adults can give them.
This was written as the full horror of last nights attacks on Paris pours out of my kitchen radio in my safe corner of Northumberland. I hope it might be useful to many parents and carers struggling to comprehend a world which seems darker and more dangerous this morning. My thoughts out go to those still waiting for news of loved ones, and I think this morning we all want to hold our loved ones a little closer.