She is scared and tearful. She asks you if she or you are going to be hurt by bad people. She tells you there are some ‘mean’ people who want to hurt others.
You don’t want her innocence to be lost so soon; at the same time, you do want to be truthful. This is a scenario that every parent fears. It is also, sadly, one we are having to deal with more frequently. What is the best way of handling it? How does a parent explain terror attacks?
The most important thing, which most adults forget, is: a child who has a secure relationship with their parents already has a fortress of containment. This is the best possible starting point for tackling the unpalatable. You can reduce the fear of terror attacks through everyday parenting.
Parents view terror and trauma from an adult perspective, through adult eyes. We recognise the ugliness of horror and atrocity. Small children have not yet developed this depth of understanding, thank goodness. Their innocence is also a protection. Unless Children are directly affected by trauma, they don’t recognise it in quite the same way as adults, unless we teach them through our own fear. It’s really important that your children do not see your fear, your rage or your feelings of powerlessness in response to a terror attack. If a child knows their parents are scared, they will be too.
Explaining terror attacks to your children: Eight things to consider
- For children, a secure and containing relationship with a parent, or another attachment figure, is the most important safety feature that protects them from acute fear.
- Explain that there are a few bad people in the world who want to cause harm but that there are many more good people. Fictional characters can often be used as good examples for younger children. They are often powerful archetypes of strength and character that children can easily relate to.
- Tell them the good people in the world outnumber the bad. Point out all the people who your child knows who help others in different ways. These people could be friends, family members, teachers, doctors etc.…
- Tell them that they have no need to worry, as Mum, Dad, Nanny, or another attachment figure, will always keep them safe. Explain to them that it is the parents’ job to protect them from the few bad people in the world.
- Never provide more information than needed about a horrific situation. Use factual language, but avoid the over use of descriptive phrases and pronouns. It’s correct to say ‘Some people were hurt’, rather than ‘Some people had their arms and legs smashed or crushed’.
- Always answer their questions truthfully, in a basic age-appropriate manner.
- Try to find a positive balancing thought to your child’s concern. In the case of the events in Nice, a balancing thought would be: a) The good and brave people who stepped in to help, or b) The doctors who are working round the clock to make the injured better.
- The focus here is to help the child balance their nebulous fear of bad people posing a threat in the world, with concrete evidence of the certainty of many better people in the world. This will help a child to form a mental representation of safely, particularly a young child, where the ability to engage in abstract thinking is not yet developed.
If your child does want to engage with the news, they may find it useful to look at the BBC’s Newsround, aimed at children aged 6-13; find an interview with Newsround’s deputy editor, Kirsti Adair, here.
Written by Dr Chrissie Tizzard Chartered Consultant Psychologist.