Many American parents woke up May 2 to the news that Osama bin Laden, the strategist behind the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, and the American embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, along with many other attacks on innocent people around the world, had been killed.
As we watched the news coverage we struggled with what to say to our children, most of whom had been born after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In order to explain today’s news and why people were celebrating, we had to weigh how much to tell our children about the events of Sept. 11, a day which was for many of us the worst day of our lives.
There’s no one right way to deal with news events like this. Parents have to trust their instincts on how much to tell their children, depending on their age, sensitivity, and other factors.
But here are some things to keep in mind to help you – and your children – understand the situation.
Make sure children feel safe.
In talking about what happened at the compound in Abottabad, children are likely to feel afraid. Children interpret every event in relation to themselves. Could bad people hurt me and my family? Are we in danger? Help your child feel as secure as possible. Tell him or her that you are there to protect them and that nothing bad will happen. Children need reassurance in order to feel secure. Insecurity in children can lead to behavior problems, nightmares, and more.
Help children understand why people are celebrating.
As much as we would like to protect our children from some of history’s darkest moments, we need to explain and interpret that history for them. This is an opportunity for parents to frame these events in ways children can understand and in keeping with your religious, ethical, and moral beliefs. You cannot teach children how to process frightening events, which they are certain to experience in their lifetimes, if you don’t talk to them.
Listen to – and answer – the question they’re asking.
You don’t have to give a multi-part lecture on the rise of extremism or provide an in-depth geography lesson on south Asia. What your children really want to know is how this information affects them, their family, their school, and their community. You don’t have to be an expert on global terrorism to answer those questions.
Know when enough is enough.
Sometimes parents over-talk a topic. It’s important to give children information appropriate to their age and understanding and then talk about something else. Answer their questions, but don’t revisit the topic again and again without them asking about it. If you do, you’ll unintentionally diminish your credibility. Children will believe you’re hiding something or that you’re more concerned than you’re letting on, and that will lead to greater fear on their part.
Model the behavior you want them to copy.
Show your child how to react by modeling the behavior you want to see them imitate. If you rely on prayer in challenging times, let your children see you pray and permit them to pray with you. If you seek out a lot of news and information, let them see that, too.
Keep in mind that children have a hard time understanding that when news stories are repeated on television or the Internet that they are not happening over and over again.
There are many times when parents wish they had a guidebook for how to deal with some issue confronting their children or their family.
At such times, it’s important to remember that no one knows your child the way you do. Only you can determine how much and what information is appropriate for them at a given time.
Do not try to prevent your child from knowing about – and participating in – world events but instead give them the tools they need to process the information.
It’s a skill they’ll need throughout their lives.