"They smiled at the good. They frowned at the bad. And sometimes they were very sad." - from Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
Millions of people have viewed the poignant video, showing a grief-stricken father in France talking to his son about the horrific attacks in Paris. It's gone wildly viral -- a clear sign that people everywhere are wondering, "How do we talk to our children about this tragedy?"
As I think about how hard it is for parents in the U.S. to explain and reassure our children, I can only imagine how hard it is for the French. Let's hope that the smallest Parisians are as strong and brave as the little French girl featured in the famous children's book, Madeline. Madeline fears nothing -- not mice, not heights, not the tiger in the zoo. She's spirited and courageous, that one. And these turbulent times require spirit and courage.
But back to the question. What do we say? Certainly, we can't avoid the conversation. Unless our children are very young, we have to respond to their concerns intentionally and thoughtfully. We can't pretend they aren't paying attention to what's happening, because they are most certainly aware. They may catch it on the news, discuss it with peers, or talk about it with no one, carrying around personal, secret burdens of fear or distress.
And while no two kids will ever respond exactly alike to disturbing events, anxious children do have some universal needs. They need to feel heard. They need stability. They need hope.
For 70 years now, Highlights for Children has been corresponding with children. Over the decades, we've learned a few things about how to talk to kids when tragedy occurs. Here are a few of our tips to keep in mind when talking to your children:
- Listen first. This is the most important thing we can do when kids are feeling sad or anxious. Allow them time to express their feelings, and actively listen, which means finding a time when neither of you are distracted. It means listening without assuming you know what will be said, and it means repeating to the child what you think you've heard. Listening like this will allow you to understand their needs. Does she just want to better understand what happened? Is he worried that what happened in Paris might happen on U.S. soil? How much information children can handle depends upon both their developmental level and temperament, but parents usually have a good feel for what's right and an ability to hear their cues.