Teens and tweens may be particularly interested in the details of the May 22 Manchester terrorist attack given Ariana Grande’s popularity, so parents should take the lead in addressing it directly with their children instead of trying to filter the news, mental health experts say.
“These kids, they all have access to technology,” says Cedarhurst child psychologist Laurie Zelinger, author of the 2016 book “Please Explain ‘Terrorism’ to Me!” They are trading information and feelings on their smartphones and through social media accounts, she says. “The information is coming to them so fast. The kids might be light-years ahead of us in terms of what they’ve heard.”
Parents should bring up the topic, says Wendi Fischer, a child psychologist and trauma specialist in private practice in West Islip. “If you don’t bring it up, somebody else is going to,” she says. “Everybody is talking about it.”
- Make sure you are calm yourself. Kids pick up on subtle cues of worry, says Danielle Smith, a psychologist at Jericho High School.
- Assess your teen and how to approach him or her based on maturity level and tendency toward anxiety, says Todd Benjamin, a social worker at Jericho High. Younger siblings may have picked up on what’s happened, given Grande’s fame. “If I had three children of different ages, I would have three different conversations,” Benjamin says.
- Ask your kids what they know and where they heard it. “A lot of information comes in, and over time it becomes more accurate,” Zelinger says. Correct misconceptions.
- Reassure them that even though terrorists want to harm others, the United States is one of the safest countries in the world, says Don Sinkfield, a mental health counselor in Valley Stream. “I would steer the conversation toward the fact that they are surrounded by people who want to protect them,” Sinkfield says. Remind them that police presence is being increased at venues, for instance, and that bags are searched before entry.
- Talk about the odds of them actually being a terror victim. The news can focus on showing one video clip over and over or sensationalize certain facts, Fischer says. Remind your kids that thousands of people got out of the Grande concert safely. “You want to put it in perspective as much as possible, without minimizing how horrible it is,” Fischer says.
- Validate their feelings and help them find ways to counteract hatred, Sinkfield says. “Let them have a voice,” he says. “Our voice against hatred is powerful.”
- Make a backup plan with your kids for times when you may be in a public venue. Explain it’s like having a spare tire in your car — you hardly ever, if ever, need it, but it’s there just in case, Zelinger says. If you get separated, what should they do? Make sure they have phone numbers for other relatives. Tell your kids that if they can’t reach you — “because I know where you are, I will be doing my best to find you,” Zelinger says. Teach them to know where exit doors are and identify places where they could meet you if separated. Teach them how to approach authority figures, and that if they see something unusual, to say something. Kids should know what they are allergic to, in case they need to be treated for anything.
- Parents should expect kids may initially have bad dreams or may resist going to crowded events, Zelinger says. “That doesn’t mean the child is not resilient enough to get over it. It just means they are processing something unusual,” Zelinger says. “If it continues beyond a few months, I would look at professional help.”