What can we tell our children about this atrocity? There are many times when we have to bear bad news or deal with the trickiest of issues. Despite personal faith or beliefs, or passionate values, none of us has definitive answers to questions of life and death. But we do have a responsibility to try and help each other find them. And an extra special responsibility to our children to find the balance between protecting them from trauma and equipping them with strategies for a life which, often outside of our immediate control, insists on presenting them with it.
Children born since the turn of this century have not known of a time when countries were not involved in a war. Outside of the arguably ‘natural’ disasters of earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, and pandemics, globally, we have seen terrorist attacks, shootings, bombings. There are ongoing territorial wars and civil conflicts. I don’t need to list – as adults, we’re acutely aware of them and remember precisely where we were at 9/11 or when we heard the news of the Manchester Arena bombings and our distress at the conflict in Syria and the mass exodus of refugees.
I have personal experience of having to lead in an instance where the impact of terror was fear. As Head of Secondary, my school took a call back in December 2015 from a suspected terrorist group. We had no idea of knowing if it was a hoax or if the threat was real; the events rolled out as if it was. Reports afterwards stated that special forces armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by sniffer dogs ‘stormed’ in and that all students were unharmed. Neither statement was true. And gossip and speculation, and drama and catastrophising added to the ongoing trauma.
It is hard to elucidate but we had to try to minimise the trauma and to encourage understanding. It is difficult to explain away a bombing or a shooting that kills innocent people. Impossible to answer questions about whether another 9/11 could happen again, especially when we have to practice lockdown and other safety procedures with impressionable children. But even though these conversations are tough to have, it’s important to have them and to give children age-appropriate information about conflict and oppression.
Right now, for sure I feel unnerved, appalled, fearful for the world’s future. War, terrorism and conflict is scary, even to grownups. To a child, who might not understand the facts or understand where the war is actually occurring, it’s terrifying. Many – maybe even most children throughout the UK – are physically far removed from the violence of war. But they are not removed from the coverage or power or influence of it. And perhaps their experience of it is through your literacy curriculum where they have read about evacuation or conscription or labour camps. Imagine their worries and confusion now. You might try to cushion children from seeing the current images, but somehow or other, they’re going to hear of it and that is why we should try to find ways of communicating about it that are helpful to them and which really will lead to history not being allowed to repeat itself.
Children pick up on snippets of information and then struggle to make any sense. They come across media images on low shelves of newsagents – never mind that graphic online content we might be unaware of. Or they hear something that’s wildly misinterpreted. So find out what children think by listening to them. Calmly opening those lines of communication shows children that you respect them and that you’re invested in hearing what they think.
Young children should not be forced into being aware of the world’s dangers especially when many just aren’t ready for it. But be aware that, for some, it cannot be avoided. Be conscious of your children’s backgrounds and what they are likely to encounter. Maybe families you know clearly made sacrifices when they were affected by loss during the pandemic; more may now be impacted because family members serve in the military – whilst not immediately directly involved in the conflict, they will present a range of perspectives.
Talking about why some people intentionally hurt others and how that can lead to war is a complex topic. The concepts of resistance and patriots are possibly diametrically opposed to the messages we try to impart to our kids about kindness, tolerance, mutual respect and compassion.
But one objective overrides this complexity. It is more than our job to reassure children that they’re safe; it is vital that they feel secure. A gentle way in, to correct misunderstanding, might be with a statement like, ‘leaders of other countries disagree on what’s important to them, and sometimes war occurs when that happens. The war is not happening near us; we are not in danger.’
It is important to be honest but that doesn’t mean being brutal with truth, or worse, opinion. Keep a balance. Children don’t need to be overwhelmed with unnecessary information or to see gory detail but, in time, they need to question how it has come about, and to understand the seriousness of war. My Father made wild predictions about how the world was coming to an end during the Vietnam conflicts. I can vividly remember some terrifying rants – none of which came to fruition, all of which filled me with terror and prompted sleepless nights as a six-year-old. It might have been better to be aware of the facts without his speculation about the scope or the end result of the impact. Predicting what might happen next is unhelpful and detrimental to influencing the change the world needs.
We have a prevalence for including swathes of a population or organisation within one capitalised proper noun. Brussels…Buckingham Palace…The West! Talking about groups of people and specific countries, labelling all with that summative identity and a stereotyped characteristic leads us, children, especially, to develop fear and prejudice so we have to work hard to avoid harmful stereotypes. Be cautious with words and statements you use and explicitly teach this idea that a range of individuals aren’t always represented by the proper noun with which they are labelled. Maintain focus on being informed and educated, not dogmatic.
Of course, it is inevitable that we will share opinions but, when we do, talk about feelings in general. Whilst we might not agree with the war or vehemently support or oppose the act of military intervention, it goes against a code of ethics to teach an opinion as fact. You can share opinions with your children, particularly if you feel that the rationale behind your beliefs is part of your own shared values but make it clear that opinion is just that.
Give them actions and suggest ways they can help. You can encourage compassion by talking to children about refugees who are fleeing war in other countries and you can donate to causes that support them. If they know there are things that they can do to help, they will feel less helpless, and more powerful with the knowledge that their actions make a difference. Helping every child to appreciate that each act of kindness is like the butterfly effect will increase their conviction that they can impact the world.
And we have seen it time and again – and felt pride and honour when someone comes out of a burning building carrying buckets of water for others! Even this morning, I have been able to find, without any deep searches, good people who are working hard to help others. People in the midst of the conflict on either side, taking risks to stand up for the world and what is good and right and in the name of peace and love. There are some challenging people in our world; we can use one or two of those proper nouns to name some today. But there are many more kind and loving individuals who are everyday, ordinary empaths doing extraordinary things to ease suffering. Professionals like doctors, nurses, charities and NGO personnel who are working hard to care for others.
Finally, we can soothe ourselves a little by appreciating how best to use the technological innovations at our fingertips. As with every human invention, we have the power to use it for good or for bad. The connections we have through social media can allow us to nurture symbiotic, cooperative relationships with groups who might once have been seen to be our opponents…our adversaries. If we demonstrate to children that we can cultivate empathy, we become less likely to hurt anybody, because we recognise our connection with the whole world.
About the Author
Julie continues to build on her relentless quest for innovative and impactful pedagogy and is motivated by growing knowledge of neuroscience and its impact on ways of learning. After 30 years in both the UK and schools around the globe, supporting inclusive, diverse learners and mentoring PGCE student teachers as a Headteacher, advisor and consultant, we’re absolutely thrilled to have Julie onboard.
She wholeheartedly supports the LifeWise mission to positively prepare children for life. Julie has been involved in opening trauma informed schools, classroom design and creating communication friendly spaces, growing student numbers, raising attainment. She is also a published author but ask her what her greatest accomplishments include and she’ll tell you the success of students thirty years down the line!
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