Around the clock reporting about terrorist events will dominate the news and social media in the weeks following an attack, leaving parents and those who work with young people wondering what to say, how to answer questions or whether to ignore it all together. The following information is a guide for parents/carers and teachers about how to discuss scary news with young people
Parents need to stay calm. Your young person will be watching your reaction … so keep it measured. Talk privately with other adults if you need to air your own feelings or explore your own reactions. Be mindful of adult conversations being overheard.
Do not delay to talk about the event. If parents do not frame the terrorist act for young people, their own vivid imagination or some other child at school will, and this framing is unlikely to be accurate, age appropriate or thoughtful enough to teach something useful. When parents address it first, they can set the emotional tone. Starting a conversation – no matter how basic – sends the message that the door is open and questions are welcome.
Find out what they know. Ask your young person open ended questions like “You may have heard that something really sad happened in Manchester and I wanted to know what you had heard about that?” Use this to launch the conversation and let them talk and listen. If they have heard nothing you can fill in the void, so they have a grounding when it comes up. Knowledge is empowering and helps to relieve anxiety.
Let them know that’s it is normal to feel as they do. Validate their feelings…if a young person says “I am scared” DO NOT say “there is no reason to be scared”. If you dismiss their fear they will learn that you are not someone who is safe to talk to. Acknowledge their fear or sadness by saying “Lots of young people and adults feel sacred and worried. It’s okay to feel like that because it was a really scary thing that happened”.
Things to say might include “A few (or one) person attacked a small number of people in Manchester. These terrorists are angry people who choose to hurt others, which is never okay. People were hurt and killed but the person responsible has also died and those injured are being helped. The police are working hard to make sure we are all safe in Australia”.
For questions like “Am I going to be okay? or “Could it happen here?” Remind them about the security all around them. Remind them that there are many people in their lives who can protect them and let them know that the police and special trained people are working hard every day in Australia to keep us safe and they are very good at this job. Reiterate that acts of terrorism are very rare…. they do not happen often and that is why they are on the news.
If young people ask “WHY” … it’s okay to say “Sometimes it’s hard to answer why .... there is never a reason to hurt others or to impose your ideas in a cruel way. Issues such religion, politics, war are all part of the story”. Avoid stereotyping of races or blaming whole groups for the actions of a few. Help young people separate angry thoughts and feelings about specific people who behave in cruel ways from the larger cultural or religious group to which those people may belong. Some young people will understand the political issues better and may need the chance to have in depth discussions with parents and teachers to help them understand the wider issue.
It is important to keep the context true…the bad guys are a tiny minority in the world. The world is full of good people …goodness far outweighs evil. The vast majority of people in the world defend their own ideas at the same time as respecting the ideas of others.
Limit TV coverage.
Talk to your young person more than once…in order to negate ongoing misinformation. Be aware they may ask the same questions over and over as they try to process things. Do not be alarmed by this but be patient.
Leave young people with a
sense of hope ...and help them to see that the world is basically a safe place and life and all the good things we do ...such as going to concerts …are still worth doing. Redirect conversation to something positive in the future – something they are looking forward to so they remain hopeful.
Routines and consistency are important at this time …carrying on with plans and everyday life events.
It may be necessary to reassure them that schools have safety plans and to go over your family plan with them. “If something happened we would ...”