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Mom, What's ISIS?

Photograph by Photograph: Courtesy of the Kass

I heard the story about ISIS members beheading Peter Kassig (pictured above) on the radio as I drove to my office. It’s impossible not to have a strong reaction to a story like this. The details are gruesome even without seeing the video ISIS released. I thought about Kassig’s parents living in Indiana and the cold, gray days of winter settling in as they begin coping with their son’s violent death. Since I had just dropped my youngest daughter at school, I made that next leap—is this a story we’d talk about tonight? How do you talk about something so horrifying and heartbreaking with your kids?

Discussing Current Events as Part of Family Culture

One of our key jobs as parents is to keep our kids safe. We’re working against all the destructive, scary and bad things going on in the world. Finding the balance in what you share with your kids and answering their questions can be difficult. Experts recommend filtering media exposure, especially for younger children. Sounds good, but then when we look around, it’s impossible to avoid TV’s in coffee shops, restaurants, on elevators and even at the bank. They’re often turned to news stations. Still, we can be mindful at home.

“My overall parenting policy is that I’m truthful with them. You tell them exactly what happened and I don’t really shy away from the political side of it or any side of it.

Matt Sweetwood is a parenting blogger and single father with five children in their 20s. Living just outside of New York City, it was impossible to avoid coverage of the 9/11 attack. One of his children’s classmates had a parent killed that day. Sweetwood is a staunch advocate for family discussions about current events and being straightforward with kids. It’s helpful to talk with parents who have already walked the path of raising little ones. Sweetwood had this to say about looking back to when his kids were young and taking a long view.

“My overall parenting policy is that I’m truthful with them. You tell them exactly what happened and I don’t really shy away from the political side of it or any side of it. I don’t necessarily do it in gory terms, but I’m not afraid to tell them there are bad people in the world and they are trying to harm us and we have to be really smart and do things the right way. Take protective measures and sometimes we have to go get the bad guys. I’m pretty straightforward about it … The long view is that you want to teach them to be critical thinkers. You want them to have those skills that allow them to really analyze situations. And that’s by having those discussions at home.”

How to Bring Up Difficult Topics

It’s important to remember that violent, even shocking events take place regularly all over the world. “Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of news out there. Whether it’s beheadings or bombings, this stuff is out there, so I would think of it as a channel of communication you want to have with your child early on in life. It’s a very appropriate way of you being an influencer in your child’s life," says Dr. Gil Reyes, a psychologist with the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Like Sweetwood, he recommends including regular discussion of current events within your family.

One technique that I like is to let your child be the informant, to give his views from kid world. You can say things like, ‘I heard this story today and I said to myself, I wonder what kids are making of this.’

"I would say something like, ‘Sometimes there are things on the news that really need to be talked about because they’re important or gross or [fill in the blank] and I think it’s good for us to have a talk.’ Look at the frame you’ve put around it. One—you haven’t singled out any one event yet. You are going there, but first you want to give it a sense of a context that, hey, we ought to be able to talk about this stuff … You’re building that trust and communication channel with kids that if they want to come home and bring it up, they can.”

Reyes emphasizes listening skills as well and helping your child find her voice as a way to fight the fear or concern events will bring up. He suggests, “One technique that I like is to let your child be the informant, to give his views from kid world. You can say things like, ‘I heard this story today and I said to myself, I wonder what kids are making of this.’ Now you’re not asking your child directly what they think. You’re letting them be the reporter. You’re letting them report to you on kid world and of course, they can’t possibly do that without letting you know how it affects them.”

Taking Action and Moving Forward

How do you handle conversations about news events when the story is as extreme as a beheading, school shooting or natural disaster? Alyson Schafer is a therapist and parenting expert. She points out that kids will sometimes hear about what’s happening in the world from other kids and often there are misinterpretations or blatantly wrong facts going around. As a parent, you are your child’s guide.

When you’re trying to find out if your kids have heard about a news event, Schafer echoes the techniques Reyes recommends and suggests asking something like, “Are your friends talking about …” This way your child tells you what he knows and you can take the conversation from there. Schafer adds that opening a discussion this way allows your child to share, but then you contribute and can turn the conversation into a teachable moment. Maybe even finding a moral lesson in the midst of tragedy.

Schafer recognizes that children process events differently than adults. A story about a school shooting leaves most of us feeling fearful and powerless. How these emotions play out for kids can be hard to predict. You may hear bits of the news story worked into imaginative play or see images show up in their artwork. Follow-up questions may come up at bath time or in the car. If your child’s response is more extreme, she may have trouble falling asleep or nightmares. Others may develop fears that seem to have no correlation to the precipitating event.

With the story about Peter Kassig, I keep thinking about the humanitarian work he was doing in Syria. His conviction and selflessness were admirable. Kassig’s parents asked for time to grieve and heal, but they’ve also talked openly about their son’s courage and commitment to making a difference in people’s lives. An interesting piece in the New Yorker covering Kassig’s death talks about the mystery behind the kind of altruism Kassig displayed. He was hero before he was killed, we just never heard about it.

“You can help children process these events by encouraging them to take an action. In the case of Peter Kassig, your child might write a letter to his parents,” Schafer recommends. Other suggestions include working intentionally to be a good neighbor, saying a special prayer with the family at dinner or creating a simple memorial.

Sweetwood echoed the effectiveness of these kinds of actions and points to the massive efforts that took place after 9/11 saying, “It helps in the healing process and it empowers people.”

Finally, it’s hard to always find the right words to give your kids space to share their concerns and thoughts. Reyes offers up some specific language for finding a way into a discussion. One way into conversation might be to say, “I read this story today and wondered what you would think about it. Have you heard about …” When we have the chance to tell what we know and control the narrative even a little, it helps in feeling less powerless in the face of bad or incomprehensible acts.

Both Schafer and Reyes acknowledges that it’s difficult to predict how kids will respond to a given event, but there are some patterns. Many children will wonder: Can this happen to me? Could something like a shooting, earthquake or other tragedy happen to my family? We are all vulnerable in some ways, but you can help kids deal with these fears by finding out exactly what the nature of your child’s concerns are.

Like Sweetwood, my kids are older and discussing current events is a regular part of our family culture. Hearing their take on events always gives me something to think about. When my 18-year-old daughter and I talked about Peter Kassig’s death, she asked if I’d heard about where Kassig had been held during the last year of his life. I hadn’t. She told me he was held with other prisoners in the basement of a children’s hospital. We were in the car, but I could feel her looking right at me. I met her eyes and then we both looked away. I understood the irony and poignancy in that detail of the story for her. And that’s another part of how these discussions sometimes go. You reach that place where there just isn’t really anything more to really say.

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