How to discuss terrorism with your kids

A Christian boy prays during a candlelight vigil for victims who were killed in Friday's attacks in Paris, at St. Thomas Church in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

(WAVY/WCBD) — The gruesome reality of terrorism is in the forefront after Friday’s attacks. Every parent wants to protect their children, but shielding them from shocking optics is difficult in the information age.

Word of the gruesome attacks in Paris surged around the world and eventually into living rooms. The tragedy in France brought up a tough conversation between parents and their children.

Rusty Lozano was sitting in his living room watching a movie Friday night when his 14-year-old daughter asked him if he had heard about Paris.

“We never know what our kids are actually privy to,” said Lozano, who is also a counselor.

Lozano contributes to the mental health website www.onlinebiofeedback.com. He says it’s critical for parents to be a credible resource to their children and start a conversation about what’s going on in the world. “We might be surprised what their response might be and what they’re saying,” said Lozano, a father of four.

Even with all the images of Paris on what feels like every screen in the world, Lozano says parents shouldn’t blame the media. “They’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” added Lozano, “A lot of this is breaking news… the gravity of it is just as intense as 9/11.”

Ultimately, the reporters are just doing their job according to Lozano, but parents are the ones with the crucial duty. “It’s better to educate your child about things sooner than later so they have a perspective from you,” said Lozano.

Medical professionals say children ages 9 to 17 are most susceptible to anxiety from witnessing events on TV.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry says most children feel confused, upset and anxious when exposed to the reality of terrorism, but adults can help them cope by creating an open environment where they feel comfortable asking questions.

AACAP provides the following suggestions:

Listen to Children:

  • Create a time and place for children to ask their questions. Don’t force children to talk about things until they’re ready.
  • Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they may worry about friends or relatives who live in a city or state associated with incidents or events.
  • Help children find ways to express themselves. Some children may not be able to talk about their thoughts, feelings, or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing pictures, playing with toys, or writing stories or poems directly or indirectly related to current events.

Answer Children’s Questions:

  • Use words and concepts your child can understand. Make your explanation appropriate to your child’s age and level of understanding. Don’t overload a child with too much information.
  • Give children honest answers and information. Children will usually know if you’re not being honest.
  • Be prepared to repeat explanations or have several conversations. Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may be your child’s way of asking for reassurance.
  • Acknowledge and support your child’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let your child know that you think their questions and concerns are important.
  • Be consistent and reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises.
  • Avoid stereotyping groups of people by race, nationality, or religion. Use the opportunity to teach tolerance and explain prejudice.
  • Remember that children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They are very interested in how you respond to events. They learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.
  • Let children know how you are feeling. It’s OK for them to know if you are anxious or worried about events. However, don’t burden them with your concerns.
  • Don’t confront your child’s way of handling events. If a child feels reassured by saying that things are happening very far away, it’s usually best not to disagree. The child may need to think about events this way to feel safe.

Provide Support:

  • Don’t let children watch lots of violent or upsetting images on TV. Repetitive frightening images or scenes can be very disturbing, especially to young children.
  • Help children establish a predictable routine and schedule. Children are reassured by structure and familiarity. School, sports, birthdays, holidays, and group activities take on added importance during stressful times.
  • Coordinate information between home and school. Parents should know about activities and discussions at school. Teachers should know about the child’s specific fears or concerns.
  • Children who have experienced trauma or losses may show more intense reactions to tragedies or news of war or terrorist incidents. These children may need extra support and attention.
  • Watch for physical symptoms related to stress. Many children show anxiety and stress through complaints of physical aches and pains.
  • Watch for possible preoccupation with violent movies or war theme video/computer games.
  • Children who seem preoccupied or very stressed about war, fighting, or terrorism should be evaluated by a qualified mental health professional. Other signs that a child may need professional help include: ongoing trouble sleeping, persistent upsetting thoughts, fearful images, intense fears about death, and trouble leaving their parents or going to school. The child’s physician can assist with appropriate referrals.
  • Help children communicate with others and express themselves at home. Some children may want to write letters to the President, Governor, local newspaper, or to grieving families.
  • Let children be children. They may not want to think or talk a lot about these events. It is OK if they’d rather play ball, climb trees, or ride their bike, etc.

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