Talking to Your Kids About Terrorism As a Blind or Visually Impaired Parent

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By Holly Bonner, MPA, MSW, CASAC

On June 3, 2017, England suffered its third terrorist attack since March. Three men purposely drove a van onto London Bridge, striking pedestrians. These individuals then emerged from the van, stabbing people around London’s popular Borough Market, a well-known hub for restaurants and bars. Eight people died, and 49 people were injured before police shot and killed all three perpetrators.

As the story broke, several major news stations interrupted their regularly scheduled programming to provide up-to-the-minute information relating to this horrific attack. Sadly, these interruptions have become all too common in households across the country with terrorist attacks monopolizing today’s headlines.

My children were playing in the living room when the events on London Bridge were first reported. While I quickly moved towards the remote control to change the channel, my eldest daughter had already heard the breaking news.

“Mommy,” she said, running over to the television, “something bad happened on London Bridge. That’s where Madeline was in our story.”

I have been reading my daughters Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline books. Madeline in London has quickly become one of their favorites in the series. When my 4-year-old heard what had happened on her beloved Madeline’s London Bridge, she became very upset and immediately began asking questions relating to the incident. “Why would somebody hit people with their car, mommy?” Fully sighted, my daughter also began to describe the imagery she had seen on the news, including flashing lights and people running.

Explaining Terrorism

Explaining terrorism to our children can be complicated. As blind or visually impaired parents, we lack the ability to physically "see" the imagery our children are exposed to in the media. However, that should not impede our capacity to explain terrorism to our kids in a way that is both age appropriate and safeguards healthy childhood development.

Blind and visually impaired parents must remain mindful. While images depicting terrorism are undoubtedly impactful, our inability to visualize does not diminish our aptitude to "feel" the gravity of what has happened. The emotional reaction we exhibit in front of our children will play an integral part in how they themselves process these events.

A father and daughter laying down talking seriously

The Movie Metaphor

Consider the movie metaphor. Take a moment and think about your favorite horror film. Creating sounds associated with fear can’t be constrained to a single modality. Filmography music and audio effects are often as gripping as the most frightening visual sequences. For example, John Williams’ musical score for the movie JAWS filled theaters with a sense of dread and foreboding long before audiences ever laid eyes on the Great White Shark plaguing Amity Island. The fear associated with the sounds of the music was palpable. This same theory applies to incidents of terrorism and blind parenting.

Don’t focus on what you can or cannot see. Instead, listen and allow yourself to feel the cognitive and emotional sensations relating to what has happened. Use this as a starting point to begin a conversation with your children.

Eight Tips for Tackling the Terrorism Discussion

As an experienced psychotherapist who has worked with hundreds of children in post 9/11 New York City, blind and visually impaired parents often ask me what is the best way to explain terrorism to their child. Here are eight tips for initiating this delicate, yet important conversation.

  1. Validate Your Child’s Feelings: Let your child know whatever they are feeling is permissible. Confusion, fear, anxiety, or sadness are all normal feelings and should be acknowledged. Once you know how your son or daughter feels about the situation, disclose your own feelings about the event. Saying things like, “I got scared too” or “hearing about all those people being hurt made me feel sad” allows your child to know the adults in their lives share their emotions. Dismissing your child’s feelings may cause them to interpret that you are not a safe person to talk to.

  2. Listen & Be Present: Your home environment offers a safe space for children to ask difficult questions about terrorism. Some kids will be more active participants in the conversation, while others may be more reserved. Both reactions are common. Depending on the age of your child, less is more. Parents will want to answer their child’s questions but providing too much information can cause confusion and undue stress.

    Utilize open-ended questions and differentiate between the senses. For example, “What did you "see" on television about the London Bridge that frightened you?” or “What did you "hear" that bothered you on the news” are both great starting points. When responding to children, parents need to utilize age-appropriate language and respond in a sensitive, reassuring tone.

  3. Stick to the Facts: Blind and visually impaired parents need to stick to the facts. Children absorb information from their surrounding sources. Friends, family, and the media will all impact what each individual child thinks and feels about terrorism. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean you can’t keep your explanation simple and succinct. Here’s an appropriate example relating to the recent London Bridge attack:
    “Three very bad men drove their van onto London Bridge. They did it on purpose, and it was not an accident. Many people were hurt and killed. The police stopped them, but it’s hard for everyone to understand why people would want to hurt others.”

  4. Emphasize Safety & Security: As adults in children’s lives, it’s our job to promote a sense of safety and security. Whatever words parents choose to use to explain an incident of terrorism, end it with the message that they don’t need to worry. Blind or visually impaired parents should also emphasize their role as protectors to help children understand the safety they feel in their home environment is uncompromised. In addition, stress how utilizing your other senses and technology allow you to care for your family. You may note how you rely on your sense of smell to alert to something burning or how you utilize a smartphone app to locate exits in a mall. Blind and visually impaired parents should also highlight the statistical percentage of an individual actually being involved in an act of terrorism is extremely low, despite the coverage these events receive in the media.

  5. Limit the Use of all Media: Developmentally, children under the age of 8 should have limited to no exposure to television coverage or media images after a terrorist attack. Middle school children can be exposed to media coverage, preferably with adult supervision, so parents should monitor and discuss what is being heard and viewed. High school-aged children have the mental capacity to understand the severity of the attacks and its political, social, and historical ramifications. However, some images may still be too graphic for this age group, so monitoring remains necessary. As blind or visually impaired parents, make sure to sit with your child and keep an open dialogue about what they are visually seeing on the screen.

  6. Know Yourself & Respect Your Limits: Nobody expects a parent to act as a licensed mental health professional. It’s perfectly okay to not have the answer to every question a child may have about an act of terrorism. If you can’t answer something factually, then utilize the opportunity to search for the answer with the child together. If the topic becomes personally too intense for you to discuss it further or if a child exhibits an overly emotional reaction to what is being discussed, call in a professional. Most public schools employ guidance counselors or social workers that can provide adequate counseling. Clergy from your chosen house of worship may also have similar services.

  7. Be Prepared for Questions Relating to Your Vision: While your child is undoubtedly aware your vision is not the same as their own, incidents such as these may prompt them to probe deeper into how you mentally process emotion without sight. Revisit the movie metaphor with them. If framed in a context they can understand, children should be able to cognitively conceptualize sound with feelings as early as 3 years old. While the movie JAWS is not an appropriate example, consider using something they are familiar with such as their favorite Disney film or television show. Watch it together, making the connections between sounds and feelings. For example, a blind or visually impaired parent may not necessarily see the clock strike twelve in the movie Cinderella, but the tone of the princesses’ voice lets us know she needs to swiftly depart the ball. We can feel her tension and anxiety without having to see it.

  8. Creative Empowerment: So much about terrorism relates to depriving people of their sense of security and independence. Sadly, there are bad people in this world. However, our children also need to know that good people far outweigh the bad. Fred Rogers, of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, often shared the story about his mother’s advice to him when he saw scary things on the news, “Look for the helpers,” she said. “You will always find people who are helping.”

    Sit with your child and make a craft, bake some cupcakes, or write a poem. Then visit the helpers in your neighborhood, like a police department, fire station, or EMS facility. Allow your child to interact with these professionals and use the opportunity to discuss your visual impairment with the helpers in your area. This will provide both you and your children with a better understanding of the important jobs these people do and offer creative empowerment through the interaction.

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