In the wake of the concert bombing in Manchester, On Point guest host Jessica Yellin spoke with global terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University, and Dr. Ellen Braaten, a child psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds.
Dr. Braaten's advice for parents talking to their children about what happened: Reassure the child that life is good, that you and they are safe. Consistency is important for a child of any age — keeping your routines the same, keeping life feeling like it's normal. And do more listening than talking.
Here are highlights from the conversation, lightly edited.
Host Jessica Yellin: So let me start with the most basic question for parents whose children are asking what happened in this attack in England: What's the most simple message you can share with them?
Ellen Braaten: You want to keep in mind, first of all, the age of your child, and what they're able to comprehend. But I think the number one thing you want to convey to them is that they're safe.
When these sorts of things happen, there are a couple of questions that kids have: How does this affect me? How is this going to affect my daily life? Are the people who love me and who care for me safe? And will I be safe? So the most important thing you can give to your child is reassurance that you are keeping them safe, and everyone around them whose job it is to keep them safe is doing that.
I also think this is an important time to do a lot more listening than talking. I think you want to get a sense of what it is your child has heard, and spend time asking them questions about what their fears are, so that you can address those fears.
Host Jessica Yellin: We have a question from a listener who's written in on Twitter. Amy McDonald says: "We're sending my 15-year-old on an educational European trip in 22 days. What should we tell her to protect herself?"
Ellen Braaten: On an emotional level, you want to make sure that your child is on a safe trip, which I'm assuming is the case. And make her aware of her surroundings. But also, give her a sense that life needs to go on, as it always has, and she should enjoy herself. And, again, answer her questions about what her fears are. We go about life assuming that our kids are safe. I think we should still have that assumption. And so I think if you have an adolescent going to another country, I think the most important thing to do is to enter into discussions with them about their own fears and about your fears.
Bruce Hoffman: I think Dr. Braaten's advice is very well taken: It's to make sure that they're aware of their surroundings. And I would even go further, and say to be careful about how they dress and appear, not to stand out in a crowd. But that's good advice for [avoiding] every crime — not to attract attention. You know, terrorism is something that garners a lot of attention, that creates lots of hype, tremendous media focus. But it's a relatively rare occurrence, and certainly there are many other dangers that anyone traveling overseas should always be aware of.
Caller Mike, from Madison, Wisconsin: I'm almost sick of all this terrorist stuff. We're talking about what we can do to keep our children safe. Well, I think the first thing we have to do is give them peace of mind. They shouldn't hear, "Terrorism, terrorism. Be afraid, be afraid" every time a little incident like this take place ... Just teach your kids be safe. It doesn't matter whether there's a terrorist attack or if they're at a concert and all of a sudden something goes wrong and there's a fire. That happens too.
Host Jessica Yellin: Ellen, is the media a big part of the problem and should parents be turning this off?
Ellen Braaten: I wouldn't say the media is a big part of the problem, but I think what the caller said is well-taken, in that we really do need to turn off the media, especially for certain age groups of children. Young children should not be watching almost any of the news anyway. The news is really for adults. We want to know what's going on in our world. A 3-year-old, a 7-year-old, even arguably a 10-year-old doesn't really need to know a lot of these details. So I think bringing down the level of media in a child's life is important. I think that will help them curb any anxiety because they're not going to be anxious about things that they don't know or even don't worry about that could happen.
I think when we're talking about adolescents, though, they do know. And I that's where [it's worth] talking to them about their fears, and putting this in the right context. This is still very rare. News makes news because it's something that's very unusual, that doesn't happen that often. Granted, this seems to be happening more often than it has in the past, but there will always be random acts of violence and we can't let that lead us, we can't let that make us feel anxious about things that we know we can't control.
Host Jessica Yellin: Ellen, let me push back on that a bit, because Ariana Grande is herself a tween icon, and even if parents were to turn off all the news about a terror attack, I've got to believe it will come through in social media for a lot of these kids who follow Ariana Grande. So is this a particularly difficult one for kids to process and does that make it especially important for parents to address it head on, rather than hoping they can just shut down the news before it reaches them?
Ellen Braaten: Yes, and this unique situation is going to hit pre-adolescents and adolescents pretty hard. And they're already at a very vulnerable age of development and now feeling even more vulnerable. So the one thing you want to do is to talk to your adolescent — because you're right, they will know about this — you want to really talk to them about what it is they want to know. Ask them, "What have you heard?" Let the information they have launch the conversation and let them, to some extent, steer the discussion.
I think it's good to kind of steer it away from getting too far into all of the facts and details, which are horrific. And I think talking more about how they feel, what this means. I think this can be a great launching pad for talking about some of those really deep discussions with this age group. But you're right. This age group will know about this. There's no question. And you have to hit it head on, and talk about the fact that there are things in this world that we can't predict. Bad things happen. But they are safe and we do everything we can to keep them safe.
Caller from Florida, mother of an 8-year-old daughter: I'm trying to teach her to be open minded and accepting. But a lot of the kids you know they hear their parents talking about ISIS and Muslims in general. And sometimes it's just really hard to tell her that not every Muslim is bad. And when you are in a classroom with a bunch of second-graders and they're talking about this, it's not easy to keep telling her that this is a rare thing, it's not going to happen to you everywhere you go. Just because somebody is Muslim doesn't mean they're in ISIS.
Bruce Hoffman: This is something that obviously has to be avoided. Terrorism has existed for two millennia and has been perpetrated by every major religious movement, some minor ones, many cults, by secular groups as well. It's a tool that's unfortunately and tragically universally embraced. The reality today is that far more Muslims have been killed by these terrorist groups than Westerners.
But I think the point to bring out is that violence occurs for a variety of reasons in different places. It is not unique to any one group even though there may be this focus now because of the perpetrators who have claimed credit for this act. But unfortunately this is one of the realities of life in the 21st century, that terrorism — even if it's not becoming more violent or more frequent — it's certainly much more amplified. I think this goes back to Dr. Braaton's points — why we have to engage in dialogue with our students and our children, and put it in a proper perspective.
Caller Elise, from New Orleans: We live in a world where people get hurt all the time. You can get hurt getting out of bed in the morning, or get struck by lightning. I taught my children when they were young to keep their heads with them and turn them on at all times. But if we focus so much on keeping our kids safe then we're not letting them be free. And nobody ever said freedom was safe.
Ellen Braaten: And it's also important for parents to model good coping skills. Your children will look to you to see how it is that you deal with this uncertainty in life. And it's right. Life is uncertain. And so they will look to you, so stepping up your own efforts in order to model those good coping skills is important. And if you're not feeling particularly confident in yourself as a parent, don't fake it. Talk to other people so that you are feeling more confident and that you're able to model those sort of skills for your child. But also, talking about your own worries, within reason, isn't bad to discuss with your children, depending on their age.
Readers, thoughts? Tips?