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Tips for talking about threats with children

Shutterstock/globe staff illustration/Viktor Gladkov

The recent mass attacks in Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino, Calif., reminded everyone that we are living in anxious times.

Closer to home, Cambridge Public Schools received four e-mailed threats of violence in recent weeks — several between 1 and 2 a.m. In the middle of the night and with little information to go on, city officials had to decide how to manage the danger without creating undue anxiety.

Superintendent Jeffrey Young said he came down in favor of providing more information, even if it meant disturbing people. As a result, every family with kids in the 6,800-student Cambridge school system received robocalls at 6 a.m., saying that a threat of mass violence had been made, but that schools would remain open.


Vague information about threats unquestionably increases public anxiety, but the calls were also empowering, said national security expert and Cambridge mother (and former Globe columnist) Juliette Kayyem. Like most Cambridge families, Kayyem sent her kids off to school on those days.

Knowing that the police, the government, and their school district are looking after them should make people feel safer, said Kayyem, whose book, "Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home," will be published in April.

But Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Gene Beresin said hazy information only serves to heighten public anxiety. Saying a perpetrator is escaping in a black SUV gives the public something to look out for; saying there's a perpetrator on the loose is just stress-inducing.

To combat the helplessness that terrorism brings, people should focus on regaining a sense of control and connection, said Beresin, also executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, who posted a list of tips for coping with the Paris attacks.

Being part of a community is very helpful — like when the "Boston Strong" meme united people after the Marathon bombings. "Don't worry alone," Beresin advised.


For parents, reassuring children is crucial, but the information must be both age- and personality-appropriate. An information-hungry 7-year-old might need a thorough explanation of what happened; an anxious 14-year-old might only want the briefest outline.

Kayyem said it can be constructive to take a historical perspective. It's easy to think the world has never been this frightening, but our times are actually relatively safe, she said. For example, compare this moment to 1940, when British families sent their children to the countryside to escape Nazi bombardment.

The hard truth is we can't hide, run away from, or be perfectly protected against the terrorism or gun violence in our society. "We're living in a time of incredible anxiety and uncertainty," Beresin said. "We have to learn how to manage it."