Talking with Kids About Osama bin Laden

All the world is talking about the death of Osama bin Laden. With televisions blaring the news every few minutes, newspaper headlines shouting it out, and radio hosts mulling over its significance, chances are your child has heard about the Al Qaeda leader’s demise from someone. Here are a few guidelines to help you talk with your children about this event, and address their fears:

Take the lead.
In all likelihood your child has heard you or someone else discuss the news (often with great emotion), so it is helpful to make some reference to the event.  Your child will then know that he can talk to you about it. If you choose not to initiate the conversation, be ready to discuss it if your child brings it up. You are the best judge of your child, so trust your instincts.

Reassure and comfort.
Tell your kids that they are safe. Offer extra comfort by discussing your child’s specific fears, and checking in with them more often. Ask your children about their feelings and answer all of their questions. Provide realistic assurance by saying things such as, “You are safe now”; “We are here to protect you”; and “Adults work hard to make things safe.”

Be age-appropriate.
It’s important that your conversation with your child is developmentally appropriate—don’t give too much information. Keep things at a basic level. Your child will either expand the conversation or come to you with questions. Stay on a simplistic level, saying merely that a man who hurt other people in the world was killed.

Protect your child from graphic descriptions and images.
Don’t let your child watch television news. It is full of images and ideas that could create anxiety and fear. Be a watchdog and control the level of information your child receives. Even for older children, watching such a news event repeatedly can be traumatic.

Say more to older children.
Parents of school-age children can make the connection to September 11, 2001, and ask if their children know what happened then. They can then explain that the man people believe is responsible for that attack was killed. Kids may ask why he was killed and not arrested. It’s perfectly fine to admit that you don’t know. After all, it is unlikely that any of us will ever know exactly what happened. With older children you may want to discuss feelings about summary judgment or capital punishment. Details about how bin Laden was killed are not necessary.

Use your experience.
You’ve probably spoken about difficult subjects with your kids before. Your 3-year-old (or your pre-adolescent or teenager) needs to hear you talk about this particular news in the same way you talk about other sensitive issues. You may already have had conversations in the past about September 11, 2001, the ongoing war, airport security, or other complicated events (e.g. death) that happened in your area or within your family.

Be on the lookout.
Be aware this news may be discussed on many channels. Bin Laden’s death was even discussed on ESPN, because news of the event broke during the station’s broadcast of a Phillies vs. Mets baseball game.

Stay calm.
If you don’t think you can calmly and comfortably discuss this topic, perhaps your partner or another family member could help. Try not to worry that talking about violence will make a child fearful. Kids as young as 4 know about violent acts, but all children need help voicing their concerns. Keeping feelings inside and not expressing them is much more harmful than talking about something violent.

Sources: Parents, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,, The Washington Post

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