Have you Talked to your Child about ISIS?

Hiding under Blankie

Kids often carry real worries about events in the news. Talking can help kids cope.

News disasters don’t just stay in the news. Children encounter them.

When something terrible happens, kids want to know why. We may not think they even know what’s going on in the adult world – but you’d be surprised. Kids pick up more than we think. They pick up our fears. And they deserve age-appropriate honest answers.

This weekend I witnessed a scene that sums up childhood. My kids were romping outside with a friend, immersed in a game of imagination. They were outside in nature. Running through the meadow. Working out the game rules. The scene from my window was idyllic.

When they came in, my youngest announced “We were playing ISIS.”

ISIS. What a chilling game.

This is childhood. Childhood is about running carefree through meadow grass. But it’s also more complex than that. Childhood play is about sorting out the world, processing fears, figuring out what’s happening in the adult world and how to cope with it.

I admit the shock value stunned me a bit. But, of course, ISIS is part of this world and therefore it’s part of children’s play.

After the game I asked the kids what they knew about ISIS – “they’re hiding in Michigan.” We talked and I answered their questions about Islam, radical Islam, what radical Islamic terrorists didn’t like and why they might be angry. Usually after an in-depth talk like this the kids get done quickly and are ready to move on. Not on this topic.

When I checked in: “Have I answered your questions? Are there still things you want to know?” The answer was:

“Tell me more.”

Kids generally want to know more until they feel safe. We can’t guarantee safety, but we can help a child feel safe.That’s the root of it. The child wants reassurance that adults around him will take care of him.

Feeling safe

  • My fears and feelings have been heard
  • I’m lucky to live in a place that’s one of the safest in the world
  • I know what to do if there’s an emergency
  • I can talk to my parents about anything
  • Knowing what it’s all about makes the world less scary

Baffled? Don’t know what to say? My book It’s OK to Go Up the Slide devotes a whole chapter to talking to kids about news disasters – war, genocide, modern slavery, refugees, shootings, natural disasters, the whole gamut.

Remember, if she’s old enough to ask, she’s old enough to get an honest answer.

We shouldn’t flood young children’s minds with disaster, but we need to be aware that young kids pick things up. They pick up information and misinformation on the school bus. At recess. From classmates. From overheard news reports. From overheard adult conversations. They hear scare stories and real stories and mix it around in their heads trying to sort it out to make sense.

And, yes, they play it out.

So check in once in a while. Ask kids if there’s anything they’ve heard adults or kids talking about that worries them. Talk. Let them play. You might be surprised how sophisticated little people’s worries about the world can be.

What big topics have you heard kids bring up? Any funny misinformation stories? What’s been your reaction?

UpTheSlide final coverIt’s OK to Go Up the Slide explores this ideas in more depth and offers words to guide big, tricky conversations on news and news disasters.


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3 Responses to Have you Talked to your Child about ISIS?

  1. Joanne Frantz says:

    Great column, Heather, on a scary topic for so many of us! This is information parents need to have.
    I heard your NPR spot on All Things Considered Weekend. Again, you were very good and clear BUT it was too short. Food for thought from the other woman about behavior in public
    judged differently for low-income families. Of course, I don’t agree with her.

  2. Bridgett says:

    Good topic Heather. But don’t you think, we can avoid giving them the scary answers and just divert their mind to something else?

    Or just tell them it’s a movie or a fairytale and just escape for the moment.

    • Heather Shumaker says:

      Absolutely not. I love fairy tales in their own right, but when a child brings something to us about real news, in the real world, it’s up to us to give an honest answer, however scary that may be. If you think about it, it’s scarier for a child to realize she can’t trust her parents to tell her about life’s difficult subjects.

      Going into details may not be necessary, but basic information is. No need to dwell on it, but remember a child feels safer when her feelings are heard, her fears are understood, and her questions are answered.