Am I Safe? Psychiatrist’s Tips For Talking To Kids About The Paris Attacks

A victim outside the Bataclan theater in Paris (Jerome Delay/AP)

A victim outside the Bataclan theater in Paris (Jerome Delay/AP)

Advice columnist Steve Almond has a typically provocative piece on WBUR’s Cognoscenti today: “Why I’m Not Talking To My Kids About The Paris Attacks.” He and his wife decided, he writes, that “we have absolutely no interest in exposing our kids to the sort of panic-stricken coverage whose central aim is the profitable stoking of anxiety.”

But for parents whose children have been exposed to the news from Paris, here are some extensive and sage tips, broken down by age group, from child psychiatrist Gene Beresin, director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, re-posted with permission from The Clay Center’s website.

By Dr. Gene Beresin

Our hearts go out to the families of those who lost their lives or were injured in the recent terrorist acts in Paris.

At times like these, amid our shock, grief and fear, we need to be particularly attuned to the impact such events have on our children. Kids of all ages have questions and various emotional reactions — compounded all the more by the footage and commentary they may be seeing and experiencing. It is abundantly clear from sound research that children and teens can develop significant stress responses to what they are exposed to in the media.

While we want to shield our kids from the horrific images and stories of the terrorist attacks, it is increasingly hard to create an impervious shield. Full protection is impossible, and we should instead be prepared to help them in the wake of yet another mass killing.

While the world may feel to us increasingly unsafe, it’s our obligations as parents and caregivers to provide comfort, reassurance and guidance to our kids.

Here are some tips for all of us as we navigate this tragic time.

For Parents And Caregivers

Let’s face it: We’re all scared. These terrorist acts leave us feeling afraid, angry and insecure. However, we as adults need to find our own way of coping; after all, the more secure we feel, the better we are able to help our kids.

• We need, in times like these, to engage with others. Adults as well as kids require a sense of community to help us feel connected and protected. So, don’t worry alone; talk about what you are feeling with your partner, spouse and friends. It’s our relationships that hold us safely in this world.

• Make time for self-care through relaxing activities such as reading, listening to music or exercising.

• Pace yourself in terms of the amount of information you choose to consume. Sometimes, it’s best to just disconnect completely.

• If you have specific questions about your kids, call your pediatrician, primary care provider or mental health professional for advice.

Universal Impact On Children Of All Ages

Children need answers to three fundamental questions:

• Am I safe?

• Are you, the people who take care of me, safe?

• How will these events affect my daily life?

Parents should expect to answer these questions over and over again. For those with toddlers and preschool children who may not yet be able to express their concerns in words, it’s still important to reassure them that everyone is safe, and that life will continue in a normal fashion.

In addition to addressing the three fundamental concerns above, here are some general principles for children of all ages:

• Keep as normal a routine as possible to demonstrate that life is secure despite the events that happened elsewhere in the world.

• Share your feelings with your children — and, ask them to share their feelings with you. Let them know that it’s OK to be frightened, sad or angry; it’s all part of being human.

• While you should try to answer your children’s questions at a level they can understand, remember that you may not have an immediate answer for everything. Some questions simply don’t have good answers.

• Remember that relationships with family and close friends are crucial; they are the foundation of your children’s world. Help them maintain proximity and closeness in any way possible.

Most children will be able to cope with the support and understanding of their parents, teachers, coaches and community members. However, some who may be vulnerable due to previous personal experiences may require special attention from a school counselor or primary care provider.

Infants, Toddlers And Preschoolers

Very young children are more disturbed by their parents’ and caregivers’ distress than by the events themselves. That’s why they’re more apt to be comforted by your actions than by your words. What can parents expect to see in this age group?

• Increased anxiety when separated from parents and caregivers.

• Looking to parents for their own reactions.

• Emotional regression, such as increased clinging or whiny behavior.

• Difficulty sleeping, fear of the dark or bed-wetting.

• Irritability, including temper outbursts, and increased sensitivity to loud sounds.

• Picky eating.

• Regression to “old” behaviors, such as thumb-sucking, and wanting to sleep with parents.

What Can Parents Do If They See These Kinds Of Behaviors?

• Spend additional time with your kids; provide more hugging, cuddling and play time.

• Be patient and reassuring, particularly with difficult regressive behavior.

• If your kids want to sleep in your bed, it’s OK — especially at times of great stress.

• Limit exposure to news coverage of the attacks, at least when your children are in the room. They do not yet have the ability to put the frightening images they see into perspective.

• Maintain normal routines and minimize unnecessary separations.

• Ask your kids if they have any worries, and share your own to demonstrate that it’s OK to talk about such things. Some kids may express their feelings by drawing, coloring or playing fantasy games with dolls or action figures. Encourage this, and try to play along. Such play may reveal their emotional struggles while simultaneously helping them resolve the feelings with which they are struggling.

School-Aged Children

Children between the ages of 6 and 12 are more advanced cognitively. They have a clear sense of right and wrong, but tend to be strictly rule-oriented. They have a simplistic view of “good guys” and “bad guys,” and feel safest when things are clear-cut. They also have a greater sense of empathy, and can appreciate the sadness or fear of others (even those they see on TV).

Despite these advances, they are not yet able to comprehend abstract concepts like justice, and they have a limited sense of causality. They are also not able to distance themselves emotionally from events, and see things truly objectively. Therefore, they may “personalize” events, as if they happened or will happen to them or their families. While they may be reassured by talking through and processing the incidents better than younger children, they can become overwhelmed and confused with complex events like these that are highly charged emotionally.

What Can Parents Expect To See In This Age Group?

• Anxiety around separation from family; sometimes not wanting to play with friends or go to school.

• Difficulty sleeping, fear of the dark, of burglars, or of harm coming to themselves or their parents.

• Increase in physical complaints, such as stomachaches or headaches.

• Poor concentration at home or at school, occasionally with decreased academic performance. Thoughts about death and dying.

• Worrying, either about bad things happening or about seemingly trivial details of daily life.
Irritability, including temper outbursts and crabby behavior.

What Can Parents Do If They See These Kinds Of Behaviors?

• Remember that kids often work through their emotional issues with play instead of words. Don’t be surprised if your children use toys to replay images of destruction they’ve seen or imagined. This is healthy, and can also give you insight into their fears and misunderstandings.

• If they seem “stuck” in one scenario — that is, they repeat the same event over and over — offer some suggestions for change.

• If your children are watching news reports of the attacks, be in the room so that you can clarify what they’re seeing and hearing. In this case, however, it’s a good idea to limit their exposure altogether.

• Let younger children know that even though they may see the same horrific images dozens of times, they are all related to one event (in this case the Paris attacks) that happened on one day only.

• Remind your children of what the real distance is between the site of the event and their home. Many school-aged children have no concept of the distance of Paris to their home, or of France to the United States.

• Expect your children to ask the same questions several times. Be patient; remember that by asking their questions, they’re letting you know that they trust you.

• Remind your children that there are many, many more good people in the world than there are bad people, and that the good people will always try to protect them.

• Let your children participate in efforts to make things better. This might include raising money for relief efforts, helping in community activities, or sending a card or drawing to victims of the attacks.

• Help your children get back to “business as usual.” Keeping them to a normal schedule will help to reassure them.

• Encourage your children to express their worries and concerns, and respond in kind by sharing yours. Allow feelings of anger, but try to re-direct misplaced feelings of hate.

Teenagers:

Many adolescents will be scared. That’s because they’re old enough to understand the implications of what happened in Paris, and they’re wondering how the events of Nov. 13 will impact their lives personally. They’re also struggling with questions about justice, power and control — and, since they’ve likely heard a lot about ISIS and mass killings, for them, the world may well feel terribly unsafe.

What Can Parents Do?

• Let your teenagers listen in as you discuss both the events and your feelings with other adults. If they join in, welcome their participation — even if you disagree with what they have to say. The simple act of talking will go a long way in helping them put their concerns into perspective.

• Be with them as they watch news reports of the events and aftermath. Comment on what you’re seeing, and listen openly to their comments as well.

• Sometimes it’s easier for teens to talk about disturbing things if they don’t have to look you in the face. That’s why some of the best discussions take place while you’re doing something else, such as playing a game, driving in the car or performing household chores.

• Share your feelings with them; this gives adolescents implicit permission to do the same with you.

Sadly, this will not be the only time we need to help our kids through hard times. Global terrorism is a modern reality we all need to acknowledge.

While we all hope for a kinder and gentler world, we need to be prepared to nurture and protect the most vulnerable population—our children.

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