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How to talk to your kids about the terrorist attacks in Paris

Since Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, almost everyone has been trying to understand the motivations behind the violence. The scene, the coverage and the response have been intense.

So how do you explain to your kids what you yourself can barely grasp? This French father does an amazing job of helping his son process what he sees around him and feel safe amid the aftermath of the carnage on the streets of Paris.

French father and son have the most precious conversation in i...

A father and son have the most precious conversation during an interview by french media at the scene of the Bataclan attacks. I saw that it hadn't been subtitled in english yet, so I made a quick edit to show the rest of the world how freakin awesome some of our citizens are. They're my heros. I feel better too now! (Courtesy of Le Petit Journal) #paris #bataclan #parisattacksOriginal Segment: http://bit.ly/1Lix9L2Original Video (without subtitles): https://www.facebook.com/PetitJournalYannBarthes/videos/1013093998733798/

Posted by Jerome Isaac Rousseau on Monday, November 16, 2015

Our children are living many thousands of miles away from the violence in Paris, Beirut or Kenya. But they may be experiencing it nonetheless through news coverage and snippets on social media. To help them, Pasadena-based pediatrician (and mom) Smita Malhotra offered these insights over email. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity:

At what age should we explain these things to kids?

You can start as young as 4 years old, as that is when kids start to understand what is going on around them. While it is only natural to not want to talk about tragedy with your children in order to protect them, in this digital age, they will find out about world events. You want to make sure that they process this information in a way that allows them to go forward and not live in fear.

What do little children need to know?

Little children only need to know the basics without unnecessary details or graphic information. The younger your child is, the more abstract you need to be about what happened. It is best that they hear the information from you versus through the media.

You can also start by asking them what they already know. It is important that you answer all their questions as it builds trust between parent and child. Let them express how they feel. If they say that they are afraid, tell them that this is OK and natural. Let them be vulnerable and show them that their emotions are valid. Children want to be heard. Once you acknowledge their feelings, reassure them that they are safe. Tell them that you love them.

There is great power in saying "I love you." Let your children know that when they encounter feelings of fear, they can always talk to you about it and that you will always be there to support and love them.

Why is it important to provide context? Do they really need to know?

Children need to know that this isn't happening to them right now. They need to know that this happened in another city or another place. Otherwise, they can sometimes feel that danger is right in their backyards.

If we don’t explain or talk with them, what happens for them?

We make them feel as if they cannot talk about their feelings. They need to know that feelings are not wrong. We all have feelings, and it is OK to express them. Children want to be acknowledged. Instead of assuming how they feel, try to understand how they feel. So ask them questions such as 'How does this make you feel?' and 'What do you think about this?'. If you don't talk to them, you close down the lines of communication and this can induce anxiety in a child.

Are there any cues that a child may need more help processing things?

Keep an eye out for signs that your child may not be coping very well. Sometimes this can present as sleep disturbances such as insomnia or nightmares or even physical symptoms such as fatigue or headaches. Sometimes this can present as social regression in younger children when a once independent child acts very clingy to their parents. These may be signs that you need to get extra support.

How do we help them feel safe when we don’t really feel safe ourselves?

First, you can explain to them about the concept of darkness and light. You can tell them that it is scary when bad things happen and there is so much darkness in the world, but at the same time there are a lot of light and happy moments. How do we see the light? We can see it in the people helping when bad things happen. We also have light within us. So when bad things happen that make us feel scared, we need to make our light shine even brighter. We can do this by helping others around us or even being nice to our siblings.

Explain to them that when we make our own light shine bright, the darkness doesn't seem so scary. This also shows them that they are not helpless, that they can do something to make things better.

Second, you can try a calming breathing exercise. So when they have feelings of fear, ask them to come back to their breath. Have your child close his or her eyes. Then ask them to take big, deep breaths in and out. You can have them place one hand on their tummy to feel the breath going in and out. As they exhale, have them repeat a simple phrase such as "let peace begin with me." Let them do this a few times. Let them know that they can always come back to their breath whenever they have feelings of being scared.

Third, it is important to maintain a routine. They need to see that the adults in their lives are not living in fear. With routine also comes stability. Remember that you are the role model for your child.

How do you handle scary and unsettling news with your kids? Share your experiences and techniques in the comments below or tweet me: @mmaltaisla

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