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?
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
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
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,
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
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
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.