“Mommy, What’s a Terrorist?”

By Debby Shulman

Over the past month, we have all felt devastated by world events that threaten our safety, the security of our country and the freedoms we cherish every day. Raising children and teens during these sensitive times requires dialogue that addresses our children’s concerns while reassuring them of their safety. With that in mind, GIRLilla Warfare is fortunate to have outstanding professional resources and today we offer valuable insight and suggestions from Dr. Andy Bernstein, MD, a pediatrician with North Suburban Pediatrics at Evanston Hospital, and Caroline Novack, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and Yoga Therapist, cofounder of True Mind + Body LLC, located in Northbrook, Illinois.

Just like the infamous “Where do babies come from?” — curiosities and questions around terrorism and violence in the media are likely to make you panic and freeze. Your mind might start racing:

How can I explain such a complex and scary topic to my child? What if I mess up or say the wrong thing? Is she old enough to know the truth? How much information is necessary?

As a licensed clinical social worker, parents frequently ask me for guidance on how to tackle these tough questions. In order to address the specific discussion of terrorism and violence in the world, I often start by zooming out to the underlying principles of encouraging ANY open communication with your child.

The following suggestions offer encouraging, open communication with your growing child:

Spend more time listening than talking. We love our children so much that witnessing any pain or confusion makes us want to make it better right away. Avoid the temptation to immediately jump in to problem-solve or preach. We will better understand our children by taking a step back, following their lead, and listening to them without judgment.

Listen to what is NOT being said by carefully observing body language. You might say, “I notice your body is tense” or “I can tell from the way that you are hunched inward that you feel uncomfortable”.

Model self-regulation by responding in a calm way, even when you are uncomfortable. You have a large role in helping your child learn and practice responding to stress in an appropriate way. In emotionally stressful situations, your child looks to YOU to determine how scared he or she should be. Show that you feel confident that your child will get through this, and explain you feel sad too, but that you will be okay.

Validate. Validate. Validate. Children and teens long to feel understood by others, particularly their parents. Confirm their fears are normal, reinforcing that terrorist events are rare and they are safe. Helping your child feel understood without judgment is the key to increasing the likelihood they will return to you for help on ANYTHING.

Reach out first. Do not wait for them to approach you on important topics. We must assume they have already heard from the media, school, and friends. More importantly, you want your child to know that discussions like this fall within safe territory in your house.

Dr. Andy:
To combat the anxiety and helplessness that can result from random acts of extreme violence, it’s appropriate to offer empowerment in the form of prevention and hope. Children find it useful to have a framework for how to approach unusual situations. For instance, if a child finds him or herself in a situation that feels unsafe, it’s important for them to know who in their lives can be identified as adults with whom to seek safety — teachers, family, police, and firefighters. It remains critical that if your child encounters a gun at a friend’s house, that he or she immediately leaves the situation and finds an adult for guidance.

Most importantly, in both children and teens, if a child shows a lack of focus at school, difficulties at home or with peers, signs of emotional regression, or obsession with the details of news events, consultation with a pediatrician, therapist, or school counselor may be beneficial.

How you approach this topic will vary from child to child, even within your own family, with special consideration to age. Below are some examples of questions and possible responses based on the guidelines described above. As with all GIRLilla advice, YOU are in charge so always follow your instincts.

Elementary School
“Mommy, what’s a terrorist?”
Be honest, but to the point. Give them only the information they need to know, in a way they can understand: Terrorists are people who do harmful things to hurt and scare others. Immediately reassure your child of her and her family’s safety: Our entire family is safe. There are no terrorists nearby, and lots of adults in your life whose job it is to keep you safe, including me.

Ask what he or she has heard about terrorists in order to correct any misinformation: Assess how much your child has heard through the media and at school. Make corrections only if  his or her misunderstanding causes undue fear: Where did you learn that word? What have you heard about terrorists?

Check in on your child’s feelings, and validate each one: How did hearing about this make you feel? Many kids feel scared and sad when things like this happen. Let’s draw a picture related to the events, or create a story about it together. I keep having bad dreams that bad people are going to hurt us …

Let your child tell you about his/her dream(s), but do not probe for extra details. Validate and normalize scary dreams: Most kids, and even parents, have bad dreams like this. Remind them of their safety: It was only a dream; you are awake and safe now. No one will hurt you or our family. Let’s think about good things you can dream about before falling back asleep.

Middle School and High School
“I’m afraid to go to school — what if somebody comes inside with gun?”
Model Confidence and Self-Regulation: Your child is looking to YOU to determine how scared she should be. Stay calm and remain confident of their safety. One of your main roles as a parent is to serve as a stabilizing figure, modeling how to calm down when under stress.

Validate these ‘normal’ fears WHILE reassuring them of safety: Kids want to feel understood by their parents: Explain that a primary reason school shootings are so terrifying is that they happen so infrequently (so they really catch our attention). The probability of a school shooting is SO low; school is actually one of the safest places for them to be.

Dr. Andy:
Teens and middle school students should be given a hopeful message that the adults in their lives are trying to make changes for the better to prevent violence — that elected officials and doctors are trying to give people better access to mental health care, that lawmakers are trying to figure out ways to keep weapons out of the hands of those who intend to do harm, and that schools practice drills to be prepared in the unlikely case that there is a dangerous situation in their own community.


High School:
“What if I’m in a movie theater or a concert and someone comes in with a gun?”

Follow your new mantra: model confidence, validate, and reassure.

Adolescents long for independence and a sense of control. Help them focus on where they DO have control: Know your surroundings, be aware of the nearest emergency exits, and, as always, remain alert to what is going on around you.

Let go of the improbable occurrences and unknowns: It will just ruin your time — Stay in THIS moment, where you are safe and secure.

In the RARE event of a movie theater shooting, safety professionals recommend keeping a low profile and getting as low to the ground as possible to stay out of sight. Avoid doing anything that draws attention.

You are safe! Nothing like this has ever happened anywhere near us, and the chance of it happening is statistically extremely low. In the event of an emergency, we live in a safe community, with exceptionally trained safety professionals, such as police and firefighters. As always, stay alert of your surroundings, act responsibly, AND have fun!!

Caroline Novack can be found at truemindbody.com
Dr. Andy Bernstein can be contacted through North Suburban Pediatrics at http://northsuburbanpediatrics.com/


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