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How to talk to your children about terrorism

In the wake of the devastating attack on children in Manchester, many of our little ones will be asking questions that we will struggle to answer. Counsellor, school teacher and mum of three Louisa Woods has some advice on talking to your children about terrorism.

Anyone who’s ever had more than a passing interaction with a three year old knows one of their favourite activities is asking questions, the curlier the better. Mine likes to throw questions you’re not ready for, seemingly devoid of context or connection, but with an absolute expectation you’ll catch the ball and chuck a decent answer back.

“How does the moon?” remains one of her best, lobbed from the backseat of the car while driving home one afternoon. “How does the moon…what?” was the incorrect response, made patently obvious by the shrivelling look and deep sigh accompanying the exact repetition of her enquiry.

There weren’t any parameters for the question; she wanted to know everything there was to know.

If we’re doing our job right, the questions never stop. Where does the wind come from? How did the baby get into your belly? Why would someone set off a bomb at a concert?

Surely one of the best attributes we can foster in our children is a sense of wonder, of curiosity, a thirst for knowledge and deeper understanding. As much as we may come to dread those hows and whys from our children, silence in the face of the quirks and intricacies of this world we live in is a pretty terrible alternative.

Most conversations aren’t too difficult. It might be a bit awkward explaining the particulars of human reproduction, and the answer to some of those “How does the moon?” questions might push the boundaries of your own understanding and stretch your creative muscle somewhat, but you’ll almost always manage an answer (and you’ve got Google to help you out if need be).

Where it does get hard is when we’re faced with situations for which there are no good answers; events and attitudes that shock and shake us, and make us despair at the state of the world. The sorts of things filling our screens and news-feeds on a daily basis, threatening to overwhelm any goodness there might be out there. The things that, not so long ago, children would have been protected from unless they happened in their own backyard, are now inescapable in a world saturated by images and soundbites of tragedy and despair.

The reality is, our children are regularly viewing and reading things that raise more questions than answers and show them a brutality and ugliness no child should ever experience, but that all too often directly involve children and young people.

The attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester is the latest in a catalogue of traumatic events with the potential to leave our children feeling anxious and frightened.

Adults find these sorts of incidents hard to deal with. We picture the terror, torture ourselves with imaginings of our loved ones being in that foyer, mull over the political and social repercussions, and worry about what may come next. But most of us can distance ourselves; we can separate our own lives from the events we see unfolding on the other side of the world.

Children, vastly imaginative and less capable of rational thinking, find it much more difficult to draw a line between their lives and events in the wider world. While adults may feel a general sense of sadness, waste, or worry, children may become genuinely anxious or frightened for the safety of themselves and their families.

It’s a bit of a balancing act to support children as they work through those big emotions.

On the one hand, you need to reassure them about their safety and security, but on the other, it’s crucial not to minimise their feelings. If you’re looking for an efficient way to alienate and devalue a person, tell them what they’re feeling is wrong. It’s as true for children as it is for anyone else. It’s a bit of a hallmark of the Kiwi condition to feel uncomfortable in the face of raw emotion and celebrate those who battle on, stoic and silent. We’re not doing ourselves any favours (as our shameful mental health and suicide statistics will attest) and we do our children a disservice when we try to stopper their emotions.

A bomb at a concert is a terrifying thing.

If your child is frightened by the thought, that is not an unreasonable reaction. Particularly when most of the images include young people in pain and distress. Approach any conversations from a place of empathy. We want to teach our kids to be caring and kind, to find appropriate ways to deal with emotion, and to support others as they do the same.

You are the model for how to do those things, and the way you respond to their feelings and needs will likely be the way they respond to other people’s in the future.

Children might need considerable reassurance about their safety. Factual information can be comforting for some as they can draw a clear line between their own life and whatever is causing them distress. Depending on the age and understanding of the child, you can decide how much detail to give but it could be as simple as showing them separate locations on a map. Remind them how safe they are in their daily life and about the people, rules and routines designed to keep them that way should anything bad ever happen.

Especially in situations such as this where someone has set out to deliberately harm others, it’s important to emphasise the fact most people are good and don’t want to hurt anyone.

Believing people can’t be trusted feeds fear and anxiety and stops children being open to meeting people and enjoying social interactions. Make sure they know most people are safe and kind – within the parameters of awareness and keeping safe.

One way to refocus is to make a point of commenting on people helping each other, to celebrate the heroes and shine a light on the way people are there for each other even in the worst of times.

I’d be careful to limit children’s exposure to media coverage and adult discussions around traumatic events as much as possible too. You don’t need to add any fuel to the fire and the less they see the more quickly they will be able to distance themselves from what’s happened. It’s not a terrible idea to take a break from the news ourselves every now and then for much the same reason. Even so, be prepared to talk about it over and again and again.  There’s bound to be some difficult questions when kids are exposed to things we’d like to believe, even as adults, are unthinkable and impossible.

It’s perfectly OK not to know the answers to some of these searching questions. Be honest, give yourself a break, let your children see there are limits to your understanding of the world too.

Most of all, be there for extra hugs and stories and warm Milo and cosy bedtime songs. The happier and more loved a child feels, the more insulated they are against the storms blowing in the big, wide world.

Louisa Woods is a high school teacher and counsellor, currently filling her days looking after her own three children, writing a bit, singing a bit, and reading as much as she can.

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