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How to Talk to Your Kids about the Paris Attacks

November 15, 2015 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Five strategies to help our children cope.

As the world reels in the aftermath of the bloody terrorist attacks in Paris, parents face a special challenge: how to discuss the attacks with our children. Here are five strategies to open the conversation and help our children cope.

1. What do your children need to know?

We all benefit from working through our feelings and fears by speaking about important topics with others. But it’s important to realize that children process information differently. Information that might be merely upsetting to an adult can be seriously traumatic for children.

Surprisingly, in the wake of disasters, it’s older children who can be most vulnerable. Dr. Susie Burke, a senior psychologist for disasters with the Australian Psychological Society, notes, "It's not the toddlers or really young children, who are probably not going to know what they are looking at. It's the slightly older children, who are aware enough to know what they are seeing [and] to be disturbed by it, but who aren't necessarily able to see that it's a one-off discrete happening, who are most prone to trauma," she advises.

Before discussing the Paris attacks with your kids, stop and ask yourself: What am I hoping to accomplish with this conversation? What are my parenting goals in this discussion? Try and keep conversations focused on kids’ fears and concerns – not necessarily your own.

2. Send a Message of a Strong Community.

As parents, it’s our job to make sure our children feel safe and secure. That can feel like an extra challenge in the wake of events such as the Paris attacks. Fortunately, we’re not alone. Showing our kids that other people share our outrage and disgust can help validate their feelings and help them feel more secure in a suddenly scary world.

Consider showing your kids photos of the Israeli Knesset lit up in the red, white and blue of the French flag and other landmarks around the world that displayed the French colors too. Look up pictures or videos of the vigils held in Tel Aviv or other cities for the people of Paris. Simple images can have a powerful impact on children.

3. Empower your kids.

Reading about horrific tragedies in far-away cities can make us feel powerless to help, and children especially can often feel powerless.

Send a message to your kids that even in the face of horrific violence in Paris, there are real, concrete things that we all can do to help. Try brainstorming with your family what you can do to help and show solidarity with the victims in Paris. This could take the form of collecting charity, or sending messages of support. Check out if your local community is accepting donations to help victims of the Paris attack. Or broaden your search and consider pledging to help victims of terrorism in other countries, such as Israel, as well.

Prayer is another powerful way to make a difference, particularly in stressful times. Consider creating your own prayer – or turn to existing prayers that are said in times of trouble. Psalm 20 is one traditional Jewish prayer has been comforting people for thousands of years.

4. Turn off the TV.

It can be tempting to stay glued to the TV, radio, or computer but saturation coverage of disturbing events can be even more traumatic than living through them directly.

That was the surprising conclusion of a major 2013 study that looked at media coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombing: researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that people who watched intensive coverage of the attack for several hours each day experienced higher stress than people who were actually at the site of the attack.

Try setting aside certain times to get updates on the latest news rather than allowing a constant stream of coverage ramp up the stress level in your home.

5. Strengthen your family.

Family time can be a powerful antidote to stress. Spending time together can open up channels of communication, and being together can help send a message to kids that they’re loved and protected.

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