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How to explain Paris attacks to children

Children light candles near the site of the attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.
Children light candles near the site of the attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris. Reuters

Even though life appears to have gone back to normalcy, many people are still struggling to make sense of what happened. They include children, many of whom have brought drawings and flowers to public spaces along with their parents to light candles in memory of the victims. How can we explain to them what happened?


As the three days of national mourning in France came to an end, people and families are resuming to their daily lives. They go to work, and many have returned to sit on the terraces of Paris cafés.

But after the attacks, parents face some challenges when they try to explain what happened to their children. 

They are confronted with several dilemmas: What to tell their children? How to explain what happened? And to what extent?

It's an issue that surfaced right after the January attack on Charlie Hebdo. And it goes without saying that parents sometimes have a hard time finding the right answers.

"First of all, they fear not finding the right words. Secondly, they fear showing too much emotion. There are no "right words" to explain what happened. Parents have to tell them, however they can, with words of their own and the main thing is the need to address the issue, then children know they’re taken into account," Claude Halmos, a child and adolescent psychoanalyst, told RFI.

"We show them that what we're talking about is something we're allowed to speak of, which allows them to ask questions if there's something they don't understand. So there are no "right words". Everyone is upset, people are emotional, we cannot speak in a off-hand manner of something that horrific, that would be very disturbing for the children."

© Astrapi

Claude Halmos explained taking the time to address the issue is very important, and parents need to tell the truth.

Others though have decided to find some other ways to deal with it, ways children might be more connected to.

For example, teachers and parents are using the cartoon image of a weeping Eiffel Tower to help young children understand what happened last Friday.

The image shows a grieving, humanised Eiffel Tower holding hands with young children and gazing at a pool of blood.

"At this age, drawings enable to convey some emotions, a lot of kids have reproduced the cartoon. At school, teachers made them draw as well as having them talk about it. It's true that to put words on it, trying to explain who the terrorists are is difficult," Frederic Benaglia, the author of the cartoon, who himself has three children aged under 15, told RFI.

"We chose to say 'men and women full of hatred'. We stressed the fact that they had nothing to do with most of Muslims who live their faith in peace here in France. It's not always easy to find words they are able to properly understand. Trying to make a difference between Islam and radicalism, especially for young children who are themselves Muslims... We need to find words that don't stigmatise, and that's our job as adults."

As adults, we have a lot of questions, and we can find answers. But for children, who don't have first hand knowledge of what's happening, what goes through their minds?

The first question they ask is "why?". They hear and see the news, everyone talks about it, especially within our hyperconnected society.

Between the radio, television, social networks and in the playgrounds, they are constantly surrounded with it.

"They were asking if the terrorists would come back, they are not completely sure. And you cannot tell them that the danger is away, because there could be more attacks," Francois Dufour, the editor in chief of a children's magazine, Mon Quotidien, told RFI.

"So that's why our team decided to get children together and talk about it, and listen to their questions. We wanted to explain rather than reassure, because even if you say that the army, the police are doing the best they can. If I would have reassured in January with the Charlie Hebdo attack, I would have been wrong.

"Kids are not living on a different planet, they are living in the same world, so they can be victims of terrorism, that's why they have to understand as much as they can."

The number one thing to do, according to everyone, is to tell the truth and try as much as possible to find the right words. Parents, teachers, should not play down the shocking reality of the events.

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