Shock, sadness, bewilderment but also anger and disbelief arose in the aftermath of the tragic events that took place in Paris.
Life doesn’t spare us from tragedy but how do we explain such gratuitous acts of violence to our children? How do we address it and how can we reassure them when we ourselves are confronted with our own emotions and doubts?
The Paris tragedy affects us all in one way or another. Numerous parenting experts and family coaches from around the world took to their keyboards this weekend and I too felt like contributing, in the hopes of helping parents address this difficult topic with their children. The suggested phrases are just suggestions. It is up to you to adapt them to the age of your children and to your situation.
- Before talking to your children you have to reassure yourself: talk with another adult – recognise your own emotions – cry – breathe deeply – rationalise as much as possible and realise that as tragic as these events are, they are still rare in our countries.
- Monitor conversations in their presence. Children who see their parents panic will feel that danger is imminent.
- Turn off radios and TV sets in order to protect children (and yourself) from information overload (especially in the car). Do not turn up the volume when listening to the news and do not let the programmes play continuously in the background which would create a sense of permanent emergency.
With little ones:
- Babies and toddlers below the age of 3 do not need to know what happened.
- Pre schoolers cannot tell the difference between TV programmes and reality. Continuous streaming of news will give them the impression that these events are still happening. This will exacerbate their fears, even more so if they have sensed your own distress and seen you cry.
- If your children are younger than 6, avoid watching the news in front of them. The language (and images) used are often very strong and graphic and since they do not understand what is happening it will only increase their anxiety.
With primary school children:
- Listen first, then keep answers short, simple and provide a minimum of details. They are most likely to have heard about the events (school friends, sirens, medias, the minute of silence etc) and they might ask questions. Before replying, encourage them to talk. This will help them process the information. Start by asking them what they know:
“What have you heard? What do you think?”
“There are some people who do not know how to use their words to say what they have to say. Instead they fight. Some of them even use weapons to hurt people who disagree with them.”
“Yes, some people were hurt. Yes, some people died this week end in Paris. It is very sad when people fight instead of talking”.
- Some children do not know how to verbalise their emotions, some react in silence. Invite them to draw or to play with their little toy characters. Be attentive to their non-verbal messages (drawing of people lying down, guns, acting fighting scenes, sounds of sirens, violence) but do not interrupt. It is their way of expressing their worries and it is healthy. Reassure them.
- Use simple gentle words, make sure they understand what you are saying and avoid adding unnecessary dramatic details which would only feed their imagination and their fears.
- Children will inevitably be affected by the tone of our voices and by our own feelings. Whilst it is healthy to express one’s emotions, our children should not bear the brunt of our own anxiety.
- We adults may not have all the answers to their questions:
“We don’t really know yet who is responsible. We do know that these are people who want to hurt and who want to scare us. The police and the government are working with police from other countries to find these bad people and punish them. There are more good people around the world than there are bad ones”.
- Tell your child she/he is safe (even if you are not entirely convinced yourself). Mention all the people who are doing everything they can to protect us: police, soldiers, medical staff.
“Firefighters and ambulances came very quickly to help people who needed care. Doctors in hospitals look after everyone who is injured. Police and soldiers are keeping a watch in the streets to allow us to continue to live normally.”
- Reassure them that these are really rare events, that you are here with him/her and that you will always do everything in your power to protect them. If your child seems particularly worried, suggest that together you check that your front door is locked.
- Regardless of their age, avoid discussing these events in the evening just before bed. Should your child approach the subject, listen to what he/she has to say, validate his/her emotions but do not add details at this time:
“You think it is sad. You were scared when you heard the alarms”.
- Be reassuring and offer to talk more about it the next day. End the bedtime routine by reading a gentle and peaceful story (one that will make everyone feel good).
- Many children feel helpless in the face of emergency situations. To give them a sense of control over the events, look at what can be done in their day to day environment.
- Check your family’s emergency plan: do you all have a list of phone numbers? (family, office, school, police). Do your children know who to call/what to do if they cannot get hold of you? Do you have their friends’ phone numbers, their friends’ parents, the school’s?
- Discuss how you can contribute to the situation: – draw hearts and drop them off in the neighbourhood – send caring thoughts of courage and affection – light a candle in your own home – help a neighbour – tell your relatives and your friends that you love them.
- Practice using words to express needs and emotions. Use role play to help children resolve their conflicts peacefully: “You would like to play with your sister’s toy but she doesn’t want to share. What can you do? What can you say?”
With older children:
- Approach the subject yourself by asking what they know and what they have heard. Check that the facts are correct. Show interest in the conversations they may have had with their friends or at school. Do not minimise their worries. Validate the differing points of view.
- The internet can give the impression that tragedies such as these repeat themselves day after day. Even though we might well believe that, it is our duty as parents to reassure our youth and to encourage them to verify the accuracy of the information they read on the Net.
- Engage in discussions related to these tragic events: young people who fall under the influence of extremist groups, intolerance, terrorism but also: tolerance, respect, solidarity, negotiation, non violent communication and empathy.
- Talk about the good things that happen in life: the things that we do not talk about because the human brain is programmed to focus mostly on the negative:
Solidarity that emerges in the wake of hardship all over the world.
Peace symbols (Peace for Paris).
Acts of kindness between strangers.
All the airplanes that land safely.
Add to this positive list with your family….