How to Talk to Kids About Osama bin Laden

Richard Rende

This post is by guest blogger Richard Rende, an associate professor of psychiatry and human Behavior at Brown University.

Our parental instinct is to protect the children, but when world events (such as the news about the capture and death of Osama bin Laden) are so prominent that our children may be affected, encourage them to talk and help them to feel as safe and secure as possible.

As a parent, here are key concepts that I would lean on when having a conversation about major news events, such as the one about Osama bin Laden.

Take the lead in introducing the news, even if you have a young child (3 or 4 years old), since it will be difficult shielding  kids from the conversation.  Given the high probability that your child will hear you or someone else discuss the news and the high level of emotions being experienced, make some reference to the event or to the idea that many adults are talking about something important.  Your child will then know that he can talk to you about it. The one caveat: if you choose not to initiate the conversation,  be ready to discuss it if your child brings it up. But this is certainly a judgment call and you are the best judge of your child, so trust your instincts. 

When talking, it’s critical the conversation is developmentally appropriate. Part of making it age appropriate is not giving too much information. A news event may be so complex, it will require you to keep it at a basic level. Start  a conversation and get it rolling by using as little information as necessary. Your child will either expand the conversation or come to you with questions.

Lean on your past experience with talking about difficult subject matters so your child can make sense of everything. Your 3 year old (or your tween or teenager) needs to hear you talk about this particular news in the same way you talk about other sensitive issues. You already have a platform for this discussion, based on conversations you may have had in the past about 9/11, the ongoing war, airport security, or other complicated events (e.g. death) that happened in your local area or within your family.

Explain the complicated emotions surrounding the event. It’s possible your child will hear or see people expressing a mix of joy, pride, and relief. With older kids,  discuss concepts like justice; with younger kids, introduce the idea that people feel pride when guardians who protect us (such as police offers, firefighters, and soldiers) prevent others from harming us.

You will undoubtedly be attuned to your child’s personal reaction. One thing to keep in mind is that your child – even the older ones — may come back to the same question numerous times. Be ready for this to happen spontaneously. Be patient, honest, and consistent – your child is looking for reassurance, not testing you. Many kids will have personal fears associated with the topic. Again, honest reassurance is a good way to go.

It’s also very important to  shield your child from graphic descriptions and images. You will want to keep updated via electronic media, but remember that almost everything out there is pitched for adults. Be a watchdog and control the level of information your child receives.

There are also good guidelines available for parents that focus on how to have conversations with children about war and terrorism. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) website has many helpful resources that are worth reading and considering.

More Parents.com resources about talking to kids:

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  1. by Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD

    On May 2, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    Sherry,
    The points you make in your blog are very important. I have an additional take on some issues that are relevant to kid’s moral development. As a development psychologist, I think Bin Laden’s death is a teachable moment. Whatever we feel, there is deep meaning behind our feelings. It is good for adults to explore the deeper values we hold as Americans and as civilized people and to help children discover meaning to concepts like justice, retribution, revenge, and empathy. I have written a blog post that provides ways to do this, both in the classroom and at the dinner table at http://www.rootsofaction.com.

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  3. by Sharon

    On May 3, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    My husband told our 9 yr old about Bin Laden’s death (without my input), and I really wish he hadn’t. He thought our kids would hear about it at school. We’ve talked to them about 9/11 but it’s a pretty abstract topic since it happened before they were born. Last night our son was visibly upset, didn’t want to go to bed, expressed concerns about nightmares, and asked to sleep with us…very unusual behavior for him. Now I’m not sure what to do or how much he should be told.

  4. by soha

    On May 3, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    I think we need all to remember very important quote which has a MORAL value for us and our kids .. ( I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” — Martin Luther King, Jr

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  6. by Devon Canton

    On May 7, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Great article about talking to children about bin Laden’s death: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-stiffelman/children-bin-laden_b_858342.html

  7. by Lisa-- The Substantive Mom

    On May 9, 2011 at 12:08 am

    Although I agree with your ideas on how one should talk to their child about this very sensitive topic, what advice do you have to offer to skeptics including myself? Allow me to clarify that I’m not disputing bin Laden is dead. I simply don’t believe it happened as reported. Like you, I believe that parents should have open and honest conversation with their children about current events. Children are far more resilient than we adults perceive. In my soblog 3girlsblogging.com, I recently talked about this topic in a weekly column about Japan’s recent disaster.

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