How do you tell the children? Talking to your kids about terrorism

New York, Mumbai, Ottawa, Kabul, Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus.  Now Paris.

I love this poignant sketch by French artist Jean Julien in response to the attacks.

Poignant sketch by French artist Jean Julien in response to the attacks.

When most of those cities were hit by appalling acts of terrorism, my children were not old enough to be told, let alone understand.  Now they are 9 and 11yrs.  They are old enough.

With annual references to ‘9/11’ at school in September, and occasional references to ‘terrorism’ in school assemblies, we have broached the subject with them over the past year, tentatively, testing the ground for what they knew and what they were ready to hear.  When we tried to explain ‘9/11’ a few months ago, they just about understood, but only just.  It was so terrible, so beyond their understanding, the ‘facts’ didn’t exactly settle in their minds.  I was rather relieved, to be honest.

But on Saturday, we had to tell them what had happened in Paris the night before; it was too big a story within our Western media for them to not pick it up soon enough.  And we knew they were old enough to have to face the facts.

And so, as we sat down for a rare family Saturday breakfast, ironically eating croissant and sipping coffee, we told them.  We kept the facts to a bare minimum as we knew more was neither necessary nor helpful.

It was a kind of coming of age.  Not because they hadn’t heard of things like terrorists, but being older they seemed that much more able to hear it.  And, of course, because it was so close to home.  “Weren’t we going to go to Paris for a holiday soon?” asked my younger son tentatively, quietly?  A little later he said “But Daddy, I don’t understand why people would do that?” “Nor do we, son. Nor do we.”

Yet it was a coming of age not just for them, but for us as parents.  It was the day when we had to reveal to our kids the full reality of the brokenness of this world; the depth of depravity and evil that humans are capable of.

I had foreseen this day 5 years ago.  I wrote about it in a short reflection piece I wrote for myself, before I’d started this blog.  I’d called it Parents: Guardians of childhood innocence.  Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote (my kids were 3 & 5 yrs at the time):

The innocence of my kids never fails to astound and profoundly move me. In fact, my heart literally aches when I consider it. They seem to be born with an innate trust in everything and everyone around them; a trust that all is fun, interesting and, ultimately safe. There appears to be no concept of anything being harmful. Their joy is untrammelled, taking delight in the simplest of things: a plate of baked beans on toast, a game of hide and seek. 

But then they start going to school.  And they start to spend more of their day with those who aren’t their nearest and dearest, who may not respond favourably to their habits or tastes that are different from their own. And they get introduced to books, films or TV programmes that reveal a darker side to the world than the one their parents have presented. Their awareness levels start to open up, their brains filter less out.

And the questions come: “Mummy, why do people get sick? Why does xx not have a daddy? Why isn’t Aunty Kate alive anymore? 

I can’t lie. And yet I can’t tell my daughter the whole truth. She’s simply not ready for it, either emotionally or intellectually.

Suddenly, I am presented with a role I had never envisaged or been prepared for.  As parents, we one day have to face the terrible task of presenting to our children the full reality of the brokenness of this world; the dysfunction, pain, hate, pride, misfortune, and sometimes sheer evil of humanity. The juxtaposition of these two worlds – one, innocent, trusting and joyful, the other mistrustful, cynical and dying – is heartbreaking.

The responsibility of this role is what unnerves me. That it is down to me, and my husband, to take my daughter’s hand and lead her to a land that is not as flowing with milk and honey as she’d first thought. It’s like lifting the curtain within a beautiful room to present a distorted, ugly landscape just outside.

My heart’s instinct is to shirk my responsibility, to lift the curtain just enough so she can satisfy her curiosity, but then to quickly drop it in case she catches sight of something really nasty.  She is only 5, after all.

Yet I know that that is ultimately not helpful to her, in fact it is potentially damaging as she will inevitably find out about those ‘nasties’.  And if it’s not at home, then it will likely be in an environment that is neither safe nor secure….

So I guess it’s best to answer her questions head on, but in a way that she will understand and can cope with; tell her enough not to throw her so completely that her innate trust in humanity is yanked from under her like a rug.  Little steps.  One at a time.” 

Five years on, I think we have done this, as best as we could.  It has been very hard to share anything scary or potentially threatening with my daughter as she has, up until a year ago, been unable to separate something bad happening to someone else from happening to her (apparently natural for her age). Interestingly, its not been the same for my son.  But over the years she and her brother have slowly absorbed difficult realities through conversations at school or hearing radio news (we don’t watch news on TV for good reason). For the most part, these realisations have come slowly, in small incremental steps.  Some not. But we’ve tried to be there to listen and try and answer those questions that inevitably come – usually just as we are saying goodnight!

And so Saturday’s conversation came.  It was difficult, terribly sad, but they were able to hear it, I think, somehow. We spared them a lot of detail deliberately.  They didn’t understand, nor did we.  We turned our sadness into prayer for those who’d been injured or lost loved ones, for the ambulance crews and hospital staff. They didn’t know how to pray, that was ok, and we kept it short: kids, let alone adults, can only take so much reality.

As parents, we have to face this painful duty of opening our kids’ eyes to the full reality of the world we live in.  Learning how to do that, in the right way, comes as we learn to understand our kids’ individual sensitivities. I guess that’s what is called wisdom.  It also requires courage and, I’m realising faith; faith in them to be able to process hard things as they grow and mature, and faith in the Love that can hold and sustain them through this.  Added to all this, I’ve been reminded again of the absolute importance of being available for our kids, to provide them with the safety of open and trusting relationships where anything can be discussed.  It’s a gift they need.  Even if it is hard to do….

Peace, comfort and strength to all those who’ve lost limbs or loved ones this weekend in Paris and the Middle East. Our heart goes out to you.

PS Since writing this, I’ve discovered many articles written on this subject on the net. For a more indepth ‘how-to” article about how to broach this subject with children of different ages see ‘How to talk to kids and teens about world trauma’ in the psycology website ‘Hey Sigmund!’ or ‘How to talk to your kids about the attacks in Paris’ by Belinda Luscombe in Time magazine

6 thoughts on “How do you tell the children? Talking to your kids about terrorism

  1. If you find it difficult to start the conversation with your children, First News is here to help. As the UK’s only national newspaper for children, we speak every week to our two million readers about what is in the news – the good and the bad. We are always sensitive, understand that they will often have no prior knowledge of a situation, so we present the news in an appropriate way, in context, with background and lots of reassurance. We point out that stories are in the news because they are rare. To find out more, go to firstnews.co.uk.

  2. Pingback: Conversations about terrorism, HIV and the etiquette of Christmas shopping | Tots 100

  3. Very moving Siobhan. Sounds like you’ve approached a difficult conversation with great sensitivity. My girls don’t seem particularly phased by what has gone but it has been interesting to watch my son ask questions, get up early to watch the news, soak in everything that is going on. What has been good is having the opportunity to discuss when religion goes bad and that Our God is greater an powerful than it all. Great post Siobhan. X

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