The recent number of terrorist attacks can cause fear and anxiety for children, particularly younger ones. Sooner or later, most parents will need to have a conversation with their child about these devastating events and answer their questions about terrorism.
I recommend that you frame it in such a way that you’re not producing unnecessary anxiety for your child, but providing them with enough detail to satisfy their curiosity or concerns. After the Aurora movie theatre shooting, I was a provider of crisis counseling services to children, teachers and parents. Here are my suggestions:
- Monitor the TV and the Internet Coverage that Your Children View. Terrorist acts are intended to spread fear and anxiety. Extensive news coverage can worsen this problem for both children and adults. Be an active participant in monitoring the type of information they receive. I recommend that children under the age of five or six not be exposed to the media images, as developmentally, they are not ready to comprehend this type of violence. You can’t “unsee” something.
- Let them know you are there to listen to their questions and concerns. Some children will talk and some won’t. Both reactions are okay. What children need is reassurance that you are available to answer their questions when they are ready to discuss what happened in the most recent terrorist attack. When they are ready, you can ask “What do you want to know about what happened?” or “Tell me what you’ve heard about what happened? “ Keep your conversation age-appropriate.
- Find out what frightens them and address it. Most children will want to know the bottom line. Will I be okay, will you be okay and is this going to happen here? Their emotions will vary based on their age, personality, religious background and their connection to the attacks. Also, keep in mind that trauma is cumulative in nature. So, if your child has experienced other traumas in their life, these terrorist attacks may put them at risk for higher distress.
- Stick to the facts. Children may have heard many different and possibly conflicting stories that could cause confusion for them. Be concrete. For example if you are addressing the recent terrorist attacks you can say “There were some people who did not like……..They wanted to hurt them, so they attacked innocent people at……….to try to scare all the people there and around the world. Many people died. It is very sad for all of us.” Your child may then raise issues about death and what happens afterwards. Depending on your beliefs, you should answer these questions as best you can.
- There are many heroes helping now and during the days beyond. Talk about the brave efforts of the army, police, firemen, other first responders and medical providers helping in the aftermath. It’s also good to let them know how important is for a community to band together to support each other during difficult times. Emphasize kindness and hope.
Here are a few questions your child might ask:
- “What is a terrorist?” you can tell them that a terrorist is someone who tries to hurt and scare people. They are trying to make people afraid. Terror is another word for being very scared. I would then add that there are not many terrorists in the world, but there are many good people in the world working hard to keep them safe.
- “Why did they do that?“ you can say, “The people who set off bombs and/or attacked people were terrorists. They were very angry and wanted to hurt people. They did this to scare people and to cause much harm and damage to the people.
- “Will it happen here?“ you can tell them that our country has taken many steps to keep us safe and that our officials are working on it every day.
Keep tabs on yourself. You probably have strong feelings about what happened in the recent terrorist attack. Reactions such as intrusive thoughts, being hyper-vigilant, or just being sad are common. It’s okay to share how you are feeling with your children. You will serve as a role model for them and reassure them that these hard conversations are possible.