How to talk to kids about the Syrian refugee crisis

Although the crisis in Syria has been building for a long time, it is the poignant and tragic photographs of children and families suffering and dying while fleeing from the danger in their home country that have finally brought the issue to the forefront of our public consciousness.

Images that some people find distasteful and others argue the world needs to see have scrolled across our computer screens and stared out of our newspaper boxes, presented without warning to adults and children alike: The photographs of tiny Alan Kurdi, drowned along with his mother and older brother, washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach resort, his limp body tenderly cradled in the arms of a Turkish soldier; the combined despair and relief etched on the face of a father cradling his children as he finally reaches shore in a slowly deflating boat; the shocking footage of a TV cameraperson deliberately tripping a refugee father and child as they flee, and the confusion and anger on the father’s face as he stares up her, wondering why.

I spoke with CBC Radio this week about the effect these images can have on our own children and how to navigate these difficult but important conversations with them sensitively and effectively.

When your kids are surrounded by news stories and images about tragedies like the current Syrian refugee crisis, how do you deal with the inevitable questions and emotions sensitively and effectively?

Image is of a young child reading a newspaper. Text overlay reads “Talking to you little kids about BIG news stories.”

What impact can these images have on children?

The images that we are seeing come out of Syrian refugee crisis can be very distressing for children of all ages. The typical images of war and fighting in the news can sometimes be easier for children to discount. Many children already see that kind of imagery in other media, such as TV, movies, and video games, so they can equate it with fiction – it doesn’t necessarily seem real. But the images from the Syrian refugee crisis that have really caught our collective attention are the pictures involving children and families. For many of our children this might be the first time they’ve ever been confronted with the fact that children can die or can be in these extremely dangerous situations, and it can make them afraid for their own safety or their friends and family.

When you add to that the fact that adults around them are having a strong emotional reaction to the pictures and haven’t had a chance to process those emotions ourselves before answering their questions, the whole situation can be very frightening for young children.

Should we try to keep children from seeing or hearing about these images?

I try to limit my children’s exposure to the TV news because the barrage of combined images and commentary is overwhelming for children (and adults too). Because they won’t completely understand it (many of us adults don’t either) they may fixate on certain images or ideas. I choose not to leave the TV news on as background noise and to avoid watching news videos online when my children are around (nothing will bring them running like sound of a video playing on the computer).

Obviously, though, it is hard in our ultra-connected world, to completely prevent our children from being exposed to the news of the day. The reality is they are most likely going to be exposed to at least some of these images at some point. I suggest learning about the crisis yourself so you know what ideas or images they are likely to come across and so you have a good understanding of the issues before you try to answer their questions.

If you think seeing images or reading more about it would help older children (9 and up) to understand the issues, I suggest using pictures and written information online or in print rather than video media.

So how can you talk to children about these complicated geopolitical issues?

Children can understand complicated concepts as long as you break them down into smaller ideas that they are already familiar with. Words like “safety” “danger” “fighting” and “choices” are familiar to children, so use them. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself – it might feel awkward to you but repetition will help them to grasp the concepts you’re trying to explain. If you can, choose a time and place when you will be free from distractions and keep your explanation as short and simple as possible.

A sample script would be:

There is a country in the Middle East called “Syria” that is having a war right now. Because of the fighting, a lot of people don’t feel safe living there anymore, so they’re trying to leave Syria and find somewhere else to live. Some of them are single people, are some are whole families with children and babies. When there is a war, it’s not easy to travel safely, so people are having to make dangerous choices, like travelling in small boats across the ocean. Even though it’s dangerous, it’s still safer than staying where the fighting is. Sadly some people, even children, have died while making that trip. We are really lucky here in Canada that we don’t have to worry about that happening to us. I’m glad we are safe here together and it makes me sad to think there are families right now dealing with that.

Then you could ask if they had any questions or if they wanted to talk about it more, and answer their questions again using the same kind of language. You could also tell them even if they don’t have any questions right now, they can come and ask or talk about how they feel any time if they think of anything, or if they have any feelings about it that they want to talk about.

What kinds of questions or feelings can you expect to come out?

Conversations like this can be very emotional for us and our children – they’re not easy discussions to have, because as adults we’re still navigating our own feelings about the crisis. If you are overwhelmed and have to take a minute while you’re having the conversation you can be honest about it – tell your child “You know what, I’m feeling pretty sad about this right now. Let’s pause for a bit and come back to this conversation, okay?” That models excellent behaviour, showing even though you are having strong feelings about it, you’re still going to be a stable, secure base for them.

It’s important to let your child be free with their feelings during this conversation – they might be scared, sad, confused, angry – or they might not react at all. Older children (middle school) might try to mimic adult conversations and analysis and might not want to acknowledge having “big” feelings about it, thinking it makes them seem immature. It’s important to let them know any feelings are normal and that as an adult, you have them too. Let them know that whatever they’re feeling is okay, and if their feelings change and they want to talk again later, that’s okay too.

When I had this conversation with Ben, his first question was one I think many of us have thought about: “Why don’t we just bring them here?” Depending on your social and political leanings, your answer might be different from mine, but the principle is the same – keep your response simple and straightforward, breaking the issues down into familiar words and concepts, and then invite further questions.

My answer was:

“That’s a really good question, and a lot of adults are thinking about that too. It’s our government’s job to keep us safe, and one of the things they’re worried about is that people who want to keep fighting will pretend to be refugees. So they are saying we can’t bring a lot of refugees all at once because they wouldn’t be able to check them all. Other people in Canada think it’s more important to help the refugees and we’ve done it before with refugees from other countries and it’s been safe, so they’re asking the government to change their mind. What do you think?”

How can you help your child deal with their feelings positively?

Talking about a situation like the Syrian refugee crisis can be very scary, even for children here who aren’t directly involved. Children have vivid imaginations and they relate to the children they’re hearing about, so even though they aren’t in the situation themselves, just hearing about it can shake their sense of security. Pointing out how people are helping can help them to feel hopeful about the present situation. Opening a discussion about what we – and they – can do to help will help to ground them in the here and now and allow them to feel a sense of security and agency. Even something as small as collecting change to donate to a relief organization can help your children feel empowered and see that they can make a difference today and in the future.

~ karyn

2 thoughts on “How to talk to kids about the Syrian refugee crisis

  1. I’m very glad to see that someone has the best interest of the children in mind. TV has become a terrible place for young minds to visit.

  2. Pingback: Talking With Your Children About Refugees, Through Books | Curious Iguana

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