How to Talk to Children About Osama Bin Laden’s Death
Osama bin Laden’s death has been highly publicized this week but knowing how to approach it with your children can be tricky, particularly when some people are celebrating. Dr. Jeffrey I. Dolgan, Senior Psychologist at The Children’s Hospital has some great advice for parents.
How might children react to the recent news that Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed?
Kids process information differently than adults. They probably don’t absorb much of it unless their parents are focusing on media. I think their curiosity is not going to be because someone is dead, but because there are crowds of people waving and cheering somebody’s death. If an individual has been bill-boarded as truly evil and has done very horrible things, and is responsible for the murder of men, women and children for years, I think a certain number of kids would understand the idea that, “The US Military has searched for this person for a long time and it’s a relief to have found him so that he can’t do bad things anymore.” They might understand that sometimes people, instead of grieving, are relieved.
How should parents approach this situation?
Handle the questions as they come up, don’t over-talk it, don’t over-expose it, but don’t ban the media either. It’s wisest to recognize a few things.
First, kids probably haven’t heard very much about Osama Bin Laden for a very long time, if at all, so he’s going to be kind of a new figure. The 9/11 tragedy happened ten years ago. Fifteen-year-olds only know about this from when they were five.
Recognize, too, that kids have an immature view of death. Kids usually don’t understand death until 8-years-old. Remember when you were a kid and a pet died? You put the pet in a box and poked holes in it so the pet could breathe. Then you buried the pet with a favorite blanket or food. This is an indication that children don’t understand death. So you have to be sure they do understand that when he’s gone, he’s gone.
The other thing to understand is unusual reactions. Sometimes when people are anxious they laugh. Sometimes when people are sad, they don’t act sad. Sometimes when they hear the news they jump up and down.
What questions might a parent anticipate their children asking in the wake of this event?
“Why are people jumping up and down and happy that somebody is dead?” Parents should explain that we’ve been very, very nervous that this person would continue to do bad things. So if mom and dad have been worried that this person is going to do bad things, we’re happy and relieved that he’s not there anymore.
What kind of language can parents use to talk about good and evil?
Let’s try to understand act versus person. There’s a difference between a person and a person’s actions and we believe most people – with the exception of just a few – are very good people. Sometimes very good people do very bad things. And sometimes very bad people do good things. Here, in our view, Bin Laden was a very bad person who did very bad things.
Is this a Wicked Witch of the West (from The Wizard of Oz) situation?
That’s a very nice model. Parents can ask their kids, “Remember when you watched The Wizard of Oz? What did we have to do with the witch? She was after Dorothy and all of her friends so she had to go. Did everybody get sad? No.”. You could compare Bin Laden to the witch. Ask children to remember in the film about what her soldiers did when the witch melted. They said, “Hail Dorothy.” They were very, very happy. It’s the same sort of thing; we’re saying, “Hail Navy Seals.”
Should parents use this as an opportunity to talk to their children about the news?
No, because that’s the parents’ agenda, not the kids’. Don’t superimpose. It’s okay for parents to ask, “Did you hear anything about what happened to somebody named Osama?” If the child replies yes, the parent can continue with, “What did you hear?” But if they didn’t hear anything, don’t say, “Well, I’m going to tell you.” That’s not necessary, because it’s adding your agenda. I would work it this way: “If you heard about this and you have some questions, come and ask.”
What behavior should parents look for in their kids to make sure they’re not taking on stress about this news?
A lot of kids are internalizers and they’re not going to tell you a whole lot. But they’ll act it out, play it out, or draw it out on a piece of paper. Be aware that modeling with gun-play is not good. Reenacting this with big distortions would be a big problem. In these situations, it’s important for parents to ask what is going on.