Tough questions, soft answers

Equip yourself to face your child's questions about terrorism and death, with the help of this article.

By Harshikaa Udasi

Tough questions, soft answers


The December 2014 Peshawar attack on school children had far greater repercussions than those visible on the surface. Scores of children all over the world, who watched the events unfold on television and in the papers, did not just have questions that demanded answers, they were also left emotionally and mentally scarred. Parents had a tough task ahead of them – to explain words such as ‘war’, ‘terror attacks’ and ‘death’ to young, impressionable minds.

Talking to children about issues like terror and death ranks high on the list of the most unpleasant tasks of a parent. Nevertheless, these topics have to be handled.

Censoring is indeed a big part of parenthood and filtering out the nasty bits is tricky. Haven’t you seen parents scurrying to stash away the morning newspapers before their children get their hands on them? Or tearing out the front pages to ensure that the little ones don’t read the ‘hard news’? How often have you told a questioning child that someone has ‘become a star in the sky’ and left him to figure out much later what death is really about?

But death, war, murder and rape cannot be brushed under the carpet indefinitely. So, brace yourselves, parents, and make an honest attempt to explain these subjects in such a way that your child is equipped to handle them.

“Children, these days, are exposed to numerous traumatic events through what they see or hear in the media. Over the years, children’s level of intelligence has increased too. This translates into them being more inquisitive and curious about their surroundings”, explains Mumbai-based clinical psychologist, Trinette Cordeiro. “Traumatic events such as terror attacks, war and rape that are reported in the news also come to the notice of young children, like it or not. When the child is seven or eight years old, you can start speaking about the dark topics,” she advises.

Do not sidestep

Of course, a child’s age influences his reaction to such news articles. Very young children confuse fantasy with reality. Slightly older children can partially understand ‘dark’ events.Children who are even older can completely comprehend these traumatic events and may have their own opinions about them. Trinette says, “Some children are more anxious than others to begin with. These children may be more prone to developing symptoms such as worrying about being separated from their parents, bad things happening randomly to them and have crying spells.”

The things to do

Trinette suggests the following tips for parents to follow:

    • Have an open discussion with your child about what she sees or hears in the news.
    • Listen to and accept the child’s feelings.
    • Offer an honest explanation about what happened.
    • Talk in terms that the child can understand; for example, If you have to tell a four-year-old about rape you can say it’s about breaking an important rule, whereas if you speak about it to an eight-year-old, you can say it’s a serious crime. Older children and those reaching puberty could be given additional details that will help them protect themselves as well.
    • Read them war stories that end with a moral.
    • Get the child to draw or write about his feelings.
    • If a death has occurred in the family, you can say that the person has gone back to God, and will now exist in a photo. Encourage the children to write letters to the deceased person and show them happy pictures of the family. You can also encourage the children to participate in extra-curricular activities to divert their minds. Most importantly, talk about it whenever the child wants to.

And what not to do

If you find yourself on a sticky wicket, as you often will, here’s Trinette’s list of things to avoid:

    • Don’t shut the child off when she seeks answers.
    • Don’t panic if you don’t have all the answers. It’s all right to tell the child that you don’t know more than what you have told him.
    • Don’t hide disturbing news items from children.
    • Remember, despite your best efforts to explain traumatic events, if the child displays symptoms like excessive crying, sleeplessness, bed-wetting and worrying about separation from parents, consult a professional psychologist or a psychiatrist.