Family therapist, author & parenting expert Susan Stiffelman talks about this difficult conversation
Apart from parents who have taken extraordinary measures to isolate themselves from the world, there probably isn't a child alive who hasn't heard about the death of Osama bin Laden. Most of our kids know that killing is "bad"; the very fabric of our society is built upon the notion that it is wrong to kill another human being. So the celebration of this man's death certainly has the potential to generate confusion in our children. Here are some thoughts about how to handle the inevitable questions from curious kids about bin Laden's death.
Answer whatever question you are asked, and don't answer questions that you aren't asked. Many times a simple answer is all your child is looking for; don't overwhelm her with information. What children most want to know is that they are safe; the conversation should be about offering reassurance, not gory details.
For a young child:
Q: "Why did our army guys kill that man, Mommy?"
A: "He attacked our country and a lot of people died. When we asked him to stop doing bad things, he wouldn't. He didn't understand how wrong it was to hurt so many people, and he even said he wanted to keep hurting people. So we tried to capture him, and he was shot during the capture. Do you want to ask me anything else about it?"
Follow your child's lead, keeping your answers simple.
For an elementary-aged child:
"You must have heard about Osama bin Laden's death. Can you tell me what people have been saying? Do you have any questions about it?"
Again, follow the child's lead, directing your responses to their specific questions or comments. Be prepared to revisit this issue more than once, as more information comes out.
For a tween or teen:
Once a child is in middle or high school (and for some children, sooner), you will want to engage them in a conversation that offers them the chance to discover and express their own developing points of view. Ask your youngster what they think our government should have done; do they agree or disagree with the killing of bin Laden? Do they think he should have had a trial? Are they interested in how he came to wield such influence over so many? Do they understand that most Muslims are not supporters of terrorism, and that in fact Islam speaks against killing others?
Of greatest importance is to keep your comments appropriate to your child's age and developmental stage, and to focus on offering comfort and reassurance. Be careful to restrict what younger children see on the news; images and dialogue are usually very inappropriate for kids, and can cause tremendous anxiety if they hear about retaliatory attacks, or see pictures of Taliban soldiers with rifles staring out at the camera.
Ultimately, this event can underscore how important it is that people from every country and faith understand that even if we have different ideas about what we believe, we have to work together to find solutions, rather than hurting or harming others when they don't agree with us.
Be respectful in handling the conversation; as relieved as many people are that bin Laden has been killed, it sends a confusing moral message for children to see adults cheering at the death of anyone. Focus on the fact that he had made terrible and harmful decisions and had threatened and hurt many people, and that our government needed to make him stop. And most important, make sure your child knows that he can tell you if he's uneasy, and look to you for the reassurance he needs.