Talking to your children about the death of Osama bin Laden

by Tripp Underwood on May 2, 2011

People celebrate the news of bin Laden's death in New York. Image: flickr/NYCMarines

This morning, millions of Americans watched on TV, as crowds of revelers amassed in New York to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. For many adults, bin Laden’s passing is likely to bring up conflicting emotions like relief and joy, as well as somber remembrance. But how will children respond to the public celebration of death? It’s been years since bin Laden has been featured regularly on nightly news broadcasts, and most people under the age of 10 are likely to know very little, if anything, about the leader of Al Qaeda. How will they process groups of adults celebrating his death, without fully understanding the extent of his crimes? To learn more about how coverage of bin Laden’s death may potentially affect children, as well as get tips for how parents can address the subject with their families, I spoke with Roslyn Murov, MD, a pediatrician and director of Human Services at Martha Eliot Health Center, who also acted as a child psychiatry liaison at Children’s Hospital Boston at one point in her career. Murov, her husband and their son were living in New York City when the Twin Towers were attacked, and says the news of bin Laden’s death was very emotional for her and her family.

In your opinion, how do you think media coverage surrounding bin Laden’s death may affect younger children?

Everyone is going to interpert this news differently, but as a rule I don’t think it’s a good idea for young children to be overexposed to people openly celebrating death. I would advise parents to be wary of that when talking to their kids about the news coverage around bin Laden. Depending on the child’s understanding of death as a concept, it may be hard for them to internalize why some deaths are tragic and this is seen as a happy event by some people. I was struck by how some 9/11 survivors said they felt a sense of relief that a person capable of such violence was no longer around. That sense of relief may be the message I would try to communicate with children who are seeing all this coverage.

What advice do you have for parents who want to talk to their children about bin Laden and the news coverage but aren’t sure how?

It’s important for parents to control what their younger children are seeing in terms of news coverage, so they are available to answer any questions the child may have, like who bin Laden was and what he had done. For events like this I think a good approach is to give the child a little information at first, then continue to answer their questions directly as the child processes everything. Children usually will stop asking when they’ve heard all they want know, so by providing a small bit of information, and then building their knowledge one question at a time, parents can help inform their children without giving them more information than they are ready for.

flickr/NYCMarines

At what age is this appropriate?

When dealing with concepts like this, it’s more about developmental age than years. Parents know their children best so they are the experts as far as knowing what’s appropriate for their kids. Children are exposed to a lot of violent imagery nowadays– just look at the content of many popular video games. I think children today formulate ideas about death fairly early, but because this is real life I think its important to stress to children that loss of life is a very serious thing and be available to answer the many questions bin Laden’s death may bring up.

In addition to advice from our expert, here’s what some of our Facebook fans are saying about how they are using the media coverage of the death of bin Laden to speak with their kids. Join the conversation here.

“Kids generally know good from evil. They know there is such a thing as punishment and consequences. Seems like the kids who watched their parents celebrate Hitler’s death weren’t scarred.”

“Try being honest and making sure they know the difference between good people and bad people.”

“Keep it honest and age appropriate. Little ones don’t need all the bloody details but our slightly older kids who remember 9/11 require a bit more. It’s a thin line for sure!”

“Well, first I realized it was time to fill them in about 9/11! (They were born after it happened.) Then we talked about the concept of justice.”

“I told my 14 year old daughter that we shouldn’t be “celebrating” the death of any person. She was 4 years old in 2001 and doesn’t remember anything, so we re-told her the facts in hopes that she will gain more knowledge and wisdom on how to treat people around the world fairly.”

“Never glorify death to a child, but I would make sure and explain that “Americans viewed Bin Laden as a symbol of many bad things in the world. We aren’t celebrating his death, people are just happy he can’t hurt people anymore.”

“Keep it very simple and don’t go into the politics. Just tell them that he was a very bad man who hurt and killed a lot of people because they did not believe or do what he wanted them to and he had to be stopped somehow. Although you are sure that he has friends and relatives who are sad because of his death, many more are happy because it stops him from hurting any more people that they care about.”

“Don’t watch it over and over again with the kids watching. They can see this as multiple events. Keep discussions to ‘adult only.’ If kids are old enough explain (to their level) what is happening and follow their cues of curiosity. If they are not that interested don’t draw more attention to it than it deserves.”

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