What Would Madeline Do? Talking to Children about the Paris Attacks

“They smiled at the good. They frowned at the bad. And sometimes they were very sad.” – from Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

Millions of people have viewed the poignant video, showing a grief-stricken father in France talking to his son about the horrific attacks in Paris. It’s gone wildly viral—a clear sign that people everywhere are wondering, “How do we talk to our children about this tragedy?”  

As I think about how hard it is for parents in the U.S. to explain and reassure our children, I can only imagine how hard it is for the French. Let’s hope that the smallest Parisians are as strong and brave as the little French girl featured in the famous children’s book, Madeline. Madeline fears nothing—not mice, not heights, not the tiger in the zoo. She’s spirited and courageous, that one. And these turbulent times require spirit and courage.

But back to the question. What do we say? Certainly, we can’t avoid the conversation. Unless our children are very young, we have to respond to their concerns intentionally and thoughtfully. We can’t pretend they aren’t paying attention to what’s happening, because they are most certainly aware. They may catch it on the news, discuss it with peers, or talk about it with no one, carrying around personal, secret burdens of fear or distress.

And while no two kids will ever respond exactly alike to disturbing events, anxious children do have some universal needs. They need to feel heard. They need stability. They need hope.

For 70 years now, Highlights for Children has been corresponding with children. Over the decades, we’ve learned a few things about how to talk to kids when tragedy occurs. Here are a few of our tips to keep in mind when talking to your children:

  • Listen first. This is the most important thing we can do when kids are feeling sad or anxious. Allow them time to express their feelings, and actively listen, which means finding a time when neither of you are distracted. It means listening without assuming you know what will be said, and it means repeating to the child what you think you’ve heard. Listening like this will allow you to understand their needs. Does she just want to better understand what happened? Is he worried that what happened in Paris might happen on U.S. soil?  How much information children can handle depends upon both their developmental level and temperament, but parents usually have a good feel for what’s right and an ability to hear their cues.   
  • Share your own feelings. Like adults, kids are often reassured to know that their feelings are shared by others. Although kids can be very good at intuiting how we feel, it can be helpful to hear you talk about your own feelings of sadness and how you cope, whether it is exercising, meditating, journaling, or attending religious services.
  • Encourage kids who are less verbal to express their feelings creatively. Some children, particularly younger ones, may be more comfortable sharing their feelings through art or creative writing. After a high-profile death, crime, or other tragic event, we here at Highlights look extra carefully at every poem, story, and drawing kids send to us, recognizing that some kids reach out for reassurance more indirectly and need a thoughtful letter in response.
  • Help kids find ways to help. You may find that your kids are helped by doing something as simple as baking cookies for the first responders in your neighborhood, in the name of first responders in Paris.  Or your kids may have their own good ideas for other “random acts of kindness.” Regardless of what you actually do, know that the conversations alone help kids develop empathy. Just make sure your children understand that it’s not their responsibility to fix the situation. That’s the responsibility of adults.
  • Focus on the good. Put the emphasis on what happened after the horrific attacks. Point out, for example, the outpouring of support and sympathy to France—from people from countries everywhere, from all walks of life. Talk about how Parisians opened their doors to offer shelter that night to people who needed it. Talk about how many governments of the world are vowing to work together to address the situation. You don’t have to know all the facts. The important thing is to help your children feel that progress is being made, and that will help them find their inner Madeline—brave, confident, and optimistic.

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....