You're in shock. So what do you tell the children?

In Britain, as around the world, parents are having to answer difficult questions about Tuesday's tragedy. But is there a right way to reply, asks Julia Stuart
Click to follow

For all of us, the images that came from New York were truly horrific. How can we ever forget the desperate sight of the office workers hurling themselves out of windows, choosing one mode of unthinkable death over another? Then there was the footage of the second plane hurtling towards the south tower, pitched at an angle so as to cause maximum devastation, and the accompanying cries of disbelief of the tourists watching through their video cameras. There were the faces of relatives twisted in agonised grief as they recalled being phoned by their loved ones moments before their deaths. And there were the scenes, played again and again, of Palestinian famililes celebrating, which did little to restore faith in human nature.

The impact of those shocking images was baffling; it beggared belief. And if we are at a loss, how do we explain to our children what has happened – and why?

Ruth Coppard, a child psychologist for Barnsley NHS trust, says it is important for children to know precisely what has happened this week. "Some people protect their children by lying almost, or reinterpreting, and I don't think that ever helps," she says. Parents should resist, for example, telling their children that the office workers flew out of the window and were saved. They should be told that they jumped because they were so frightened.

It may also help parents, Ms Coppard advises, to try to explain what went on in language that children already understand: "What I say to kids is that sometimes there are people who believe something so strongly that they think they're right to bully people to get what they want, and this is just a form of massive bullying."

It is important, she adds, that children are told that it was a one-off event, committed by fanatics – though again, she advises using terms they understand. "I say things like 'nutters', quite seriously. It's the language used by children I mix with. It's a generic term for somebody who is so far beyond our thinking. The only way you can explain it is that someone was mad enough, in a clinical sense, to believe this was justified."

Children will be frightened by what they have seen, she says, and will need to be made to feel safe. It should be explained to them that the events in America happened a long way from Britain – something that even some adults are struggling with. "I was talking to a friend yesterday, who's a perfectly sensible grown-up person from Sheffield who's supposed to be going to London next week, and she was saying: 'I'm not sure I could go to London'.

"We are talking about a deliberate act that was targeted on a particular bit of America, and I think that should make the children of this country feel safer."

Parents' reaction to the atrocity should also be tempered, says Ms Coppard. "It's a very complicated issue for children because they are taught at school to be kind, and if somebody kicks you, you turn the other cheek, and go and tell Miss, but there will be an awful lot of parents saying: 'We'll get them.'"

She suspects that some children will find it hard to clear their minds of the more gruesome images. "More than anything, you should just cuddle them and say, 'There, there,' in the short term. It is important that you talk to your children about the events of this week, and you certainly shouldn't pretend they never happened. But on the other hand, you don't necessarily have to encourage your children to spend days and nights glued to CNN."

Margaret McAllister, a freelance educational psychologist, believes it is important for adults to admit that they don't have all the answers. "It's crucial to acknowledge that many adults are struggling to come to terms with these horrible events, and I think that parents should not feel that they have got to be able to give definitive black and white answers to children. It's such an awful event that it's difficult to give any definitive answers about it even to ourselves," she says.

"It's important never to be afraid to say to your child that you don't know something. It's part of the child's growing-up. Nobody in the world has all the answers to everything, answers that everybody would agree upon."

Ms McAllister says that with younger children, parents should acknowledge that something dreadful has happened, and explain that most of the people in the world try to do good things, but some people do bad things.

"It's also important to reassure your child and say these are very, very, very rare events, and it's not likely to be anything like this again, and certainly not here. Children can get the wrong end of the stick and become troubled and anxious. It's important to keep things on a calm level and be loving and reassuring, and try not to go into too much detail that a five-year-old might not understand."

With older children, parents can elaborate more about how some people become so obsessed with an idea, or a philosophy, that they will go to horrifying lengths to act within that, and that this often brings great sorrow and pain to those who are on the receiving end, Ms McAllister advises. With teenagers, it is important to discuss concepts like extremism and moderation, and the evils of fanaticism.

No doubt most children, accustomed as they are to violence in films, music and television, will, once reassured, move on to the next thing that captures their imagination. Perhaps it will be the adults – who most fully understand the implications of the horrific events this week – who find it more difficult to ever feel truly safe again.