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In Response to Paris: Talking To Your Kids

The father of Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, Exec. Director, NAMLE, was a victim of the Pan Am Flight 103 terrorist bombing, and in this poignant post, she share tips from her own personal experience on ways to discuss the tragic Paris bombings with kids. #PeaceforParis

There are lots of people who want to know what to say to their kids about what happened in Paris. As a parent and a media literacy educator, I want to share this with you.

When my son was around 5 years old, he asked me a question I’d been waiting a long time to be asked. “How did your dad die?” Even though I had anticipated this question, I was a deer in headlights. I didn’t know where to start.

You see, when I was 17 years old, my father was a passenger aboard Pan Am 103 when it exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland due to a bomb placed on board by terrorists. From the moment I became pregnant for the first time, I wondered how I would explain this to my children. What would I tell them? How would I tell them? When would I tell them?

The truth is I didn’t answer my son’s question that day. I said something along the lines of, “It’s really complicated, bud. I think we should talk about it when you are a little older.” Yep, I panicked. I then called his pediatrician and asked for a referral to a child psychologist so that I could talk to an expert about how all this should unfold.

When my husband and I sat down with the psychologist, I wanted her to tell me how I can share what I had to share without making my kids nervous wrecks. How can they know what really happened to their Grandpa and in turn to their mother without feeling intense sadness and fear for the rest of their lives? The advice that she gave me was invaluable. Here are the 3 things she told me.

  1. Only answer the questions that your child asks. Do not offer more information. Keep it simple and straightforward.

  2. Focus on what came after the tragedy not the tragedy itself. Share the stories of strength, love, and hope. Tell them the bad men have been punished and cannot hurt us anymore.

  3. Remember that this is not their tragedy. They may not be sad or fearful. Kids can separate themselves. Don’t be surprised if they don’t show much emotion at all.

I went back to my son armed with this information. I said, “Remember when you asked me about my dad? I’m sorry that I didn’t know what to say. I wanted you to know that my dad was traveling home from London. There was a problem with his plane, and it crashed.”

Then, I waited. I am sure it was 3 seconds. It felt like 3 weeks.

My son looked at me and said, “Oh. Okay.” And went back to what he was doing.

Then, almost A YEAR LATER, he asked me out of the blue, “What was the problem with your dad’s plane?” He was ready to know more. I was ready to share it with him. I told him. “There were some people far away from here that were really angry at the U.S. They put a bomb on the plane, and it exploded.”

Once again, he said simply, “Oh. Okay.” And went back to what he was doing.

From there things unfolded naturally at the pace in which my son and then my daughter wanted to know the information. Often times, they showed no emotion. It was clear my tragedy and my loss are not their tragedy and loss.

This morning after the horrible tragic evening in Paris my son, now 13, asked, “What exactly happened?” I told him simply, “There were a series of coordinated terrorist attacks on the city. Many people died. All the attackers are dead, and the city has it under control.”

“That sucks,” he said as only a 13 year old can.

“It sure does.” And we both went back to what we were doing.

Your kids might have questions about Paris. Your kids might overhear people talking about Paris. Your kids might not want to know about Paris. What as a parent should you do and say?

Besides the tips the child psychologist gave me many years ago that I urge you to take into consideration, here are a few other things I hope you will consider.

  1. Turn off the TV and don’t watch news pieces on your computer in front of your kids. Your kids do not need to see and hear this tragedy. The story is still unfolding. There is still so much to figure out. The repetition of images and the speculation is not good for them or anyone.

  2. If they are old enough to have social media, sit with them and go through their feed with them. Comment on how many different stories are out there and how different the perspectives can be. Let them know that people will be sharing a lot today and in the near future. Let them know that a lot of it will be inaccurate. Encourage them to talk with you about things they see.

  3. If you want to shield them from this altogether but are afraid people are going to be talking about it around them, then simply say, “You may hear about some events that happened in Paris this weekend that are very sad. Please know that the story is still unfolding and people don’t know all the details. Odds are the things you hear aren’t going to be 100% correct. I want you to know that I’ll be happy to talk about anything you hear and answer any questions you have.”

  4. Remind them of two things: they are safe and the world is filled with good people. This can be very difficult for parents because there is no way to 100% guarantee our children’s safety. The news media also fills us with the stories that make it seem that the bad guys are winning. Truth is: there has never been a safer time for children to grow up. Unfortunately, stories of safety and good people don’t often get the lead in the news.

As my kids have grown older and more aware, there are times when my dad’s death makes them sad. Of course, they wish they had had the chance to meet their grandfather. Over the years, they have learned about the bombing and how tragic it was. My daughter is the one that feels it more acutely. Recently, when I was about to leave for a business trip, she asked with tears in her eyes, “How do you know what happened to your dad’s plane isn’t going to happen to yours?” Inside my heart breaks a little but I say very confidently, “It can’t. The reason my dad’s plane exploded is because there was an unaccompanied piece of luggage on the plane. That can’t happen anymore with the security measures we have in place.” And the conversation is over. I do not say more than I need to say.

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