How to talk to children about distressing news
News-wise, it’s been a tough few weeks in the UK, with the Grenfell Tower fire happening concurrently with incidents in Westminster, London Bridge and Borough Market, Finsbury Park and of course the Manchester Arena attack.
It’s no surprise that children have questions about all of this. Beyond natural curiosity and an awareness of the world around them, many young people are constantly connected to the news via the internet and social media – and will look to adults for answers.
So what can you say when young people are asking you about all the horrible things that have been happening?
The NSPCC has released guidelines for parents on how parents can talk to children about terrorism:
- Listen carefully to a child’s fears and worries
- Offer reassurance and comfort
- Avoid complicated and worrying explanations that could be frightening and confusing
- Help them find advice and support to understand distressing events and feelings
- Remember that children can always contact Childline free and confidentially on the phone and online.
They also point out that some children may feel targeted because of their faith or appearance, and it’s important that children, who may feel scared or embarrassed, are reassured it’s not their fault this is happening, and can talk to you about it – or another adult they trust.
Likewise, it’s important to intervene if you believe a child has received – or given – offensive or unkind comments about faith or background. You can calmly explain such comments are unacceptable, and help them understand that someone’s beliefs do not make them a terrorist. Most people are as hurt and scared by these attacks as each other, irrespective of faith, belief or background.
Alongside The Times, the NSPCC made a powerful video following the Paris attacks last year, showing how parents can talk to children about terrorism, which feels all the more relevant now:
Writing in the New York Times after the Paris attacks, Pamela Druckerman quoted influential psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto, emphasising two things parents should do: answer questions, and be honest.
Children don’t need to be happy at all times; they live in the same world as adults, and it’s important they understand what’s happening around them. It’s far worse if kids sense that something’s wrong, but no one talks to them about it.
It’s important to keep these explanations age-appropriate; too much detail may only further scare a younger child, but older ones are likely to want to know more, and in more depth. Druckerman also recommended that parents can identfiy something comparable from their childhood, and calmly explain how they dealt with it as children. And if you don’t have all the answers, it’s ok to say “I don’t know.”
However, it’s wise to stop short of showing them traumatic footage, or photos of the violence. If, however, you do find a young child staring at a disturbing TV report on the news, don’t panic: gently suggest a TV break, answer questions they might have and, if you think it’s right, quietly change the subject. Don’t lunge for the remote, cover their eyes, tell them off, or say “You shouldn’t be watching that” – this is only likely to create more concern and anxiety.
Siobhan Freegard, founder of Channel Mum agrees it is important to approach the topic in an age appropriate manner: “Over time older children will begin to understand that bad things happen to good people but there is no reason or benefit to them being frightened or overwhelmed with information they can’t process.”
“Less is more. Many children only want to know: Am I safe? Could this happen to me? Read between the lines of your children’s questions and recognise that what they want most is reassurance. Don’t flood children with more information than they are ready to process.”
“Above all, make your child feel safe,” says Freegard. “However horrific the recent events, your chances of being hurt in a terror attack are tiny, so ensure your family focuses on what’s good in the world and how these attacks can bring people together, not tear us apart.”
With older children, it’s wise to first find out what they have heard, or how much they already know. Ask what they’ve heard, from which news sources, and how they or their peer group feel about it. If they don’t want to talk – that’s fine. You’re there as a supportive presence, not to pressurise them into talking.
It can also help to normalize feelings of fear and anxiety, rather than dismissing them. Agreeing that many people will have been shaken by terrorist attacks (yourself possibly included) is better than saying “there’s nothing to worry about,” as it will make them feel less isolated. Moreover, it shows you share their concerns, and are someone they can talk to about this sort of thing.
As the NSPCC video suggests, it can also be helpful to reassure children that there are groups and entities looking out for them, and working hard to prevent such incidents happening again. Whether that’s military, police, counter-terrorism units or (with something like Grenfell Tower), firefighters, let them know that people are dedicating their lives to preventing tragedies.
If you know of any inspiring examples, share them, and leave your child with some faith in humanity, rather than constantly fearing the worst. For example, like the Imam who protected a man from being kicked to death, even though that man had just driven a van into a mosque.
Finally, Minerva spoke to teachers, and asked them how schools might deal with telling students about what’s been happening. Chantelle, a primary school teacher in South London, said: “We just tried to spread a message of love and harmony – that was in assemblies lead by senior leadership. I also read my class articles about the attacks and the fire from First News (primary school newspaper) and let them ask any questions they wanted.”
Adelaide, another primary teacher in London, told us: “We had a minute’s silence for each recent incident the following day, after head teachers spoke about those things in assembly. Most teachers used Newsround as a way of explaining the events, including what to do if you feel upset by the news, and who they can talk to about it – myself included.”
“In particular, I put a big emphasis for my class on reputable news sources, and not fake news or social media. I gave my class the opportunity to ask questions, rather than speculating, which is always a temptation. That helps to reinforce for students that, regardless of media attention and how seemingly common these events have been, they shouldn’t be afraid. If you don’t worry about being in a road accident, you shouldn’t worry about terrorist attacks – you’re no less safe, just because they seem to be happening more often.”
“I’ve also used it as an opportunity to talk about heroism, how awful things can bring communities together, cause people to do good, and say no to hate and racism. However many bad people are out there, there’s so many more out there doing good things.”
“We spoke a lot about Jo Cox, and her narrative that there’s more that unites us than divides us, and that’s the most important message for young people to remember.”
For more information on this topic, there are several useful articles, some of which we have referenced here:
By David Bard
David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about everything that’s trending in education.