Why now is the time to talk to your children about terrorist attacks

It’s field trip season in middle school.

Which means that all over the country young adolescents are headed to memorials and museums. In New Haven, Connecticut, field trip season means the 8th graders are going to the World Trade Center in New York City. Which means that at my kitchen table, my daughters and I are discussing how safe it is to be at the World Trade Center. Two of us think it’s one of the safest places in the world. The 7th grader, who will go to the World Trade Center with her class next year, isn’t so sure.

It’s been almost 15 years since September 11, 2001, three years since the Boston Marathon attacks, five months since the Paris, Beirut and Baghdad attacks, four months since the San Bernardino attacks, and one month since the Brussels and Ivory Coast attacks.

Which might make right now the perfect time to talk to our children about terrorist attacks.

In the first few hours after one of these attacks, many parents have the experience of simultaneously being with their child and first learning about these tragic events. Our kids have been with us as news broke on TV or the radio, when we’ve seen a graphic photograph on-line or in the newspaper, or talked to a neighbor about the events. Many of us have asked ourselves if we should make a mad dash to hide the newspaper/turn off the radio/change the channel/hush our neighbor. And we have wondered how to parent while dealing with our own feelings of fear and the unknown.

Part of the issue at the moment is that there is so much that is unknown. Reporters tell us they are following the crises and that they will let us know as soon as they have more facts.

But facts are what children — and most of us — crave in these moments.

So with limited facts, we do our best. We may frame the uncertainty within certainty by telling our children that we, ourselves, are safe. That good, smart people are working to keep us safe. And that we should still go to school and work and live our lives because we are safe.

But right now, months and years after the attacks, we have much more knowledge. We can answer our children’s questions — whether they ask them out loud or not. Who did it? What happened to the people? And Am I safe?

Which makes right now a good time to talk to our children about the recent terrorist attacks.

I’m a pediatrician. When I talk to my patients’ parents about this, I remind them that talking to their child about these tragedies should be like talking to their child about sex and death. That means that, consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics children need to be able to depend on trusted adults like parents and teachers.  The discussion should be at the child’s developmental level. Most of the conversation should stem from the child’s questions.  Parents should initiate the first discussion and then check back in regularly as things change with the child – and, in this case, with the world. I remind my patients’ parents that the library is full of books on how to talk to children about these topics and staffed with librarians who can steer a parent toward these books.

Like talking to our children about sex and death, when the events feel remote we can speak with greater patience and honesty. And if the discussion comes from a parent wielding a book full of facts, parents get to infuse knowledge with their personal ethics and morals.

The truth is, for many school-age children, even if they haven’t encountered the news when with their parents, the topic is likely coming up in school. CNN school videos, Newsela, and other on-line entities take yesterday’s news into today’s classrooms. The Sunday night after the Paris attacks, Newsela sent an email to teachers telling them that Monday’sedition of their reading comprehension tools would include news on Paris. They sent a similar email after the Belgium attacks. The email explained that most school-age children will have heard about the terrorist attacks and gave advice how to lead age-appropriate class discussions. My 7th-grade daughter said the CNN school video she saw in school after the Paris attacks didn’t show any explosions but it did use the words tragedy, death, and terrorist.

Unfortunately, for many children, experiences of tragedy aren’t just the stuff of books or kitchen table discussion. Nearly 14 percent of children under 18 in the United States have been exposed to a disaster, and 25 percent of them experience PTSD, anxiety, depression or panic attacks. Children’s symptoms may include regressing to a younger developmental stage, becoming disruptive or complaining about aches and pains. Those who feel close to the tragedy, whether by geography or otherwise, may experience mental health symptoms even if they are physically unaffected by it. Caregivers of these children should seek care from primary care and mental health providers. The Office of Homeland Security has incorporated mental health-related response into the core competencies for disaster preparedness so that when tragedies are close to home, mental health access should increase.

But what about our children who are not close enough to the events to personally know anyone but who are hearing about it? Like talking about sex and death, we should give them facts that come from their questions, a place to ask questions where they won’t feel judged by their questions, and information couched within our ethics.

Most of today’s middle school students were not alive on September 11, 2001, but most of their caregivers have lived through a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Talking to our children about terrorism won’t prevent another attack, but it will help us all raise an informed, thoughtful, empathic generation.

After a terrorist attack, there is a lot of talk about what we can do to simultaneously keep ourselves safe and maintain our way of life. Teaching our children now, while we are full of facts and not in crises mode — by engaging them at their developmental level, with facts, and sharing our opinions — is one significant way to do that.

Marjorie S. Rosenthal is a pediatrician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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