Paris attacks — what to tell children

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

The images and video are everywhere since the Friday terrorist attacks in Paris. There is the blurry video of people running and screaming, but also images of the Eiffel Tower as peace sign, and expressions of love and support on social media.

With cell phones and social media, there’s no keeping upsetting images or information from children, but is there a way to help them process it?

Caelan Kuban Soma is the Detroit-based clinical director of the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children, which trains professionals to deal with trauma in children. She says it’s most important that children know they are safe.

“And it’s important for them to know that the likelihood of something like that happening anywhere is very very rare,” Soma said. “Although, things like that do happen. The hardest question to respond to is, ‘Why would somebody do that?’ There’s really not one correct answer; it depends on what the parents want to say, and what their religious and cultural beliefs are. One thing to tell them is, ‘Something was very, very, very — use lots of verys — wrong with their mind, and they did something that was very very unkind.’ ”

Elementary-age children may not even be asking about the attacks, and if they aren’t, Soma says, there’s no need to discuss it.

“My daughter is in fourth grade, and they talked about it in her social studies class, so then it’s completely appropriate to talk about it and answer questions. But don’t go into more detail than is being asked, keep it child-directed.”

Herman Daldin, a Wyandotte child and adolescent psychologist, visited Paris a year ago with his son, now 15. Friday’s events left his son, a Cranbrook student, more puzzled than anything.

“His school is a wildly diverse place. There are Muslim students, some of the girls wear burkas, and they all have lunch together, they get along,” Daldin says. “So he is mostly puzzled by it, trying to figure out why, and what they were doing.”

One of the best things parents can do is not have the TV going continuously, showing the same gruesome images over and over, Daldin says.

“Some parents will leave it on all day. This happened during 9/11,” Daldin says. “I suggested that people not leave the TV on and have the planes blow up in front of the children continually, over and over. It did cause post-traumatic stress in a lot of people, who had nightmares and flashbacks about it for a long time.”

One of the positives aspects of social media, Soma points out, is that along with the disturbing images, there are many uplifting memes and stories.

At her wedding last week, she noticed most of the kids in attendance were peering at their Instagram accounts.

“The kids were on Instagram and every single picture was Paris or the Eiffel Tower,” Soma says. “But they are seeing a lot of support and a lot of advocacy for love and for freedom and peace and kindness on social media. So if we want to look at the bright spot in all of this, that is something it offers.”