Talking terrorism with kids is tough, but don’t dismiss it
By Sara Paulson, FLORIDA TODAY
10:11 a.m. EST January 28, 2016
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Yeah, it’s a discussion parents don’t want to have. But brushing off your child’s fears isn’t the answer, one expert explains.
My 13-year-old is quickly learning that life isn’t a nonstop fairy tale.
Blame social media. Mom watching the news. Or overhearing adults talk about the latest terror attack. Or those metal detectors we recently had to walk through at a theme park.
It’s scary. For her and me. And it begs the question: How do we, as parents, talk to our kids about terrorism and school shootings?
I can’t ignore it. Especially after Kristen came home one day and told me that her school had been placed on precautionary lockdown. It freaked her out to see her teacher close the blinds and usher everyone to a corner.
“I’m just scared that someday, some random person with a gun who’s nuts is going to come in and shoot everybody,” she told me.
Luckily, I recently chatted with Emily Tonn with Pamper Your Mind in Indian Harbour Beach. Tonn is a registered mental health counselor who specializes in family issues. I asked her: How should parents talk terrorism with their kids?
Tonn gets that a lot.
“Usually, I have kind of the over-arcing theme: ‘Be reassuring, but don’t dismiss,’ ” Tonn said. “And a lot of times as parents, that initial reaction is to protect and shield your children from the bad in the world.”
That’s normal. (So don’t feel guilty.) But it’s important to not give unrealistic promises.
“That natural instinct when a child is worried about something is to say, ‘You’re OK. Don’t worry about it,’ ” Tonn said. “But this is an opportunity for parents to create an atmosphere where it’s OK to feel whatever you’re feeling. And it’s OK to come to (your mom or dad) with that.”
It’s also crucial not to be dismissive. But how you broach it needs to be tailored to your child’s age. A guideline:
• Middle- and high-schoolers: They’re getting info from friends, teachers and more.
“They’re hearing so many things in the background that they may not even come to you,” Tonn said.
An easy way to start that conversation with them is to just ask, “ ‘What have you heard? What do your friends say?’ That’s always the gateway,” Tonn said.
And then, just be frank.
• Elementary-age kids: “Facts are power to them,” Tonn said. “If you just kind of skirt around the issue, they’re going to know.”
Ask the kids what they’ve heard about such incidents — and what questions they have.
“Talk about probabilities, the likelihood of it happening,” Tonn said, if it’s age-appropriate.
The younger the kids are, the more you can generalize information.
Some kids don’t even want to go there. For those, Tonn suggests saying, “Maybe you don’t want to talk about this right now, and that’s OK. But I want to make sure you know what to do if you can’t get a hold of me.”
Go over family safety plans — for school, home, wherever — and places to meet in any kind of an emergency.
• Preschoolers: That’s really the only age Tonn recommends being careful about what’s on TV — and the conversations you’re having.
“Just try to keep it away from them, unless they ask you,” Tonn said. “If they ask you questions, they know something.”
No matter the age, it’s always important to remember your kids are soaking in your behavior. Consider how you’re handling situations and emotions you’re showing.
Oh, and it’s OK to admit that you feel scared sometimes, too. (That’s what we call being human.)
“Children mirror their parents,” Tonn said. “So when a parent is feeling stress or anxiety, you don’t want to, again, shield them from everything you’re feeling, because you’re showing them that feelings exist.”
Remember, too, that every family’s different — and you know your kids better than anyone else. And these standards may not always apply — such as with a child who has experienced trauma. If there are concerning changes in your kid’s behavior, consider additional help.
So, back to my discussion with my teenager. She brought up the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that left 20 students and six staffers dead.
It felt like instinct to follow Tonn’s advice. I told Kristen to look at probabilities.
“I can’t say that nothing’s ever going to happen to you,” I started. “But I can tell you this — that the chances are incredibly small.”
I sniffled as I told her how terrible the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting was.
“It was horrible to see,” I told her. “It’s awful. There are some awful people in this world, but there are also good people. And you just have to remember that.”
My daughter told me that she feels bad for the parents of the kids killed. I told her so did I.
“The chances of something like that happening to you are extremely, extremely thin,” I said. “But all you can do is try to be safe and react smartly.”
She paused, then bluntly said, “If I’m ever in that situation, I’m screwed.”
Normally, I’d tell her not to talk like that. But in the spirit of a good mom- daughter convo, I let that one go.
Sometimes, that’s OK to do, too.
Paulson is the editor of Space Coast Parent, FLORIDA TODAY’s free monthly parenting magazine. It’s available at CVS stores, Brevard libraries and recreational centers.
Contact Paulson at 321-242-3783 or firstname.lastname@example.org.