There is no handbook for raising children in an age of terror.
Random violence is not new, but the nature of the threat and its potential impact on our children can be challenging to discuss. From 9/11 to San Bernardino, from Paris to Brussels, our children are absorbing information in ways that are scary for them. As a homeland security and terrorism expert, and a mother of three, I have learned that there is no bright line between the world out there and the impact of it in our own homes.
So here are some useful tips to raise confident kids in an age of terror.
1. You are the adult.
Our children take their cues from adults. Terrorism is not only random, it is exceptionally unlikely to impact us. The risks of bike riding, driving, or even getting bit by a shark are much higher. While you may not want to tell them the last one on your next beach vacation, it is essential that parents behave in ways that put the threat in perspective. Freaking out in front of them, or yelling at the television news, are not model behaviors generally, but when it comes to terrorism children want to know that adults have some grip and perspective. So, get some.
2. Assume they know.
Terror is meant to terrorize, so it should be no surprise that our children’s sense of confidence—about travelling, separation, or going to big events—might be impacted by a major terror attack. My general rule of thumb—in a world of iPhones and Facebook—is that your kids know more than you think they do. They need you to channel those concerns for them, calmly. Remind them that many of us grew up in a time when there were significant risks as well; nuclear drills were common in the 1980s, for example. Showing them how you too grew up in times of unease can give them a sense of historical perspective.
3. Take their cues.
My friends who are mothers often call me about what they should say to their children when a major terror incident occurs, or whether they should still travel to Europe after an attack, such as the latest attacks in Paris. Talking to kids about scary things should not only be done in an age appropriate manner, but will depend on maturity, where you live (urban or rural), and your child’s physical independence.
What I do know from years of experience is that even young children understand danger (Harry Potter, anyone?) and also understand risk reduction (such as putting on helmets or seat belts.) Take your cue from them and remind them of all the ways that they live with risk, and they are better for it: the trips abroad, the baseball games, the bike riding. The more we can put terror in its proper place, the healthier our children will behave. And always remind them while there are bad people in the world, there are far more good people.
4. Embrace the family.
A major component of homeland security efforts is that, as citizens, we understand our role in it. Telling a kid “everything will be fine” is important, but also explaining to them what you have done to prepare yourselves for any potential harm is key. Don’t put terrorism on a pedestal. Explain how, as a parent, you care about all risks to them and your home, from mother nature to public health pandemics.
In any disaster, the most important issue for victims and the surrounding community is family unification; when bad things happen, getting families together (preferably at home) is the number one focus for first responders. It is a relatively easy thought process to map out and discuss. Kids will feel empowered knowing that you have gone through the checklist.
5. Get prepared.
While communication is important, there is much you can do to prepare yourself for anything that could go wrong. In other words, get shopping. Show your kids how you have back up provisions, talk to them about what they should do in the event of an emergency, copy important papers, and just be prepared. A prepared home will give parents a sense of ownership about the mayhem in the world and children a sense that the adults in their lives are masters of any disaster.
Juliette Kayyem is one of the nation’s leading experts in homeland security. A former member of the National Commission on Terrorism, and the state of Massachusetts’ first homeland security advisor, Kayyem served as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security where she handled crises from the H1N1 pandemic to the BP Oil Spill.
Presently a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, she also is the founder of Kayyem Solutions, LLC, one of the nation’s only female owned security advising companies. Kayyem is a security analyst for CNN, and in 2013 she was the Pulitzer Prize finalist for her columns in the Boston Globe. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, she is currently on the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Kayyem lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and three children and is the author of Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.