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Children and Terrorism

I t seems that not a day goes by lately where there is not some mention of terrorism in the news. Not necessarily in our country but terrorism has been a perennial issue on the news both at home and away. No matter how hard we try to protect our children from such stories it inevitably is heard by them. How do we talk to children about this so that it does not become an overriding fear for them?

You would think that the way they talk about it in the news that an attack is imminent. How much information should parents provide, or how do parents answer their children’s questions about this? How can parents advocate non-violence while all around us violence is occurring?

Of course a child’s age will affect what a parent will say and how much they say; younger children will probably be the most upset about the violent images they may see in the news and on television. This is because it is easy for them to confuse facts with fantasies. The fear of danger for them is often not based in reality and they can be easily overcome by irrational fears. At this young age they are not able to understand the difference between what is real and what is not. That may result in them equating a scene from some movie with some news report. It may not be clear to them that many of the news stories are just repeats of the same story.

Besides age, the child’s level of maturity and their temperament will also affect how they respond to such news. Some children are just more prone to fear than others; thus this constant news about terrorism may increase their anxiety more than other children. Most children and teens will also personalize the news they hear making an effort to take what they see on TV and apply it to issues in their own life.

Many parents think that talking to their child about these violent acts will only increase their fears; this was found not to be true. What turns out to be true is that having children keep their fears to themselves is much more damaging than talking about it. Just like any other topic a parent can talk to their children about, when you talk to them you must take into consideration their age and their level of understanding.

A good way to commence such a conversation would be to ask them what they have heard about what is going on. It is not a good idea to lecture or to teach the kids about it until you have some idea what is important, troublesome or confusing to the child about terrorism. This will be different for each child.

Try to take advantage of those opportunities that lend themselves to such a conversation. A good time may be when you are watching the news together. You can also approach such a conversation when you are watching another TV show and people are fighting or violence occurs in that show. You could start a conversation about differences, violence and tolerance. Helping children learn about other cultures will also help minimize their fears and misunderstandings of other cultures.

Adults need to help children feel safe at a time when the world seems to be a more dangerous place. Parents and teachers in particular must help youngsters understand current events factually, how events do or do not impact their lives, and how to handle their emotional reactions. The degree to which children are affected will vary depending on personal circumstances. Children who have suffered a personal loss from, or had firsthand exposure to, terrorist acts e.g. a child who lost a friend/relative or survived the Westgate attack will be much more vulnerable. Also at greater risk are children whose parents are in the military, and those children whose parents are involved in emergency response or public safety.

All children, however, are likely to be affected in some way by war or terrorism involving our country. For many, the guidance of caring adults will make the difference between being overwhelmed and developing life-long emotional and psychological coping skills. Teachers and can help restore children’s sense of security by modeling calm and in-control behavior. It is crucial to provide opportunity for children to discuss their concerns and to help them separate real from imagined fears. It is also important to limit exposure to media coverage of violence.

Emotional responses vary in nature and severity from child to child. Nonetheless, there are some similarities in how children feel when their lives are impacted by war or the threat of war:


  • Fear: Fear may be the predominant reaction – fear for the safety of those in the military as well as fear for their own safety. Children’s fantasies of war may include a mental picture of a bomb being dropped on their home. While their worries are probably exaggerated, they are often based on real images of terrorist attacks or war scenes. When children hear rumors at school and pick up bits of information from television, their imaginations may run wild. They may think the worst, however unrealistic it may be. Any publicized threat of war or terrorism close to home may also add to their fear.


  • Loss of control: Military actions are something over which children – and most adults – have no control. Lack of control can be overwhelming and confusing. These feelings are experienced by most people in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Children may grasp at any control that they have, including refusing to cooperate, go to school, part with favorite toys, or leave their parents.
  • Anger: Anger is a common reaction. Unfortunately, anger is often expressed at those to whom children are closest. Children may direct anger toward classmates and neighbours because they cannot express their anger toward terrorists
  • Loss of stability: War or military deployment interrupts routines. It is unsettling. Children can feel insecure when their usual schedules and activities are disrupted, increasing their level of stress and need for reassurance.
  • Isolation: Children who have a family member in the military, but may feel isolated. Such children may feel jealous of friends’ undisturbed families and may strike out at signs of normalcy around them.
  • Confusion: This can occur on two levels. First, children may feel confused about terrorist attacks and war, what further dangers might arise, and when the violence will stop. Second, children may have trouble understanding the difference between violence as entertainment and the real events taking place on the news. Today’s children live in the world of Armageddon and cartoon Super Heroes. Some of the modern media violence is unnervingly real. Kids may have difficulty separating reality from fantasy, cartoon heroes and villains from the real terrorists. Separating the realities of war from media fantasy may require adult help.


What Can Parents and Teachers Do?

If your children or students seem to need help beyond what is normally available at home or school, seek mental health services in your community. School psychologists, counselors and social workers can help identify appropriate services and help with the referral process. For most children, adults can provide adequate support by the following actions:

Acknowledge feelings:

Knowing what to say is often difficult. When no other words come to mind, a hug and saying “This is really hard for you/us” will work. Acknowledge that you do not like violence and war either, but hope that the military can stop the terrorists or help bring peace to other countries. Try to recognize the feelings underlying children’s actions and put them into words. Say something like, “I can see you are feeling really scared about this,” or “It is hard to think that your dad had to go so far away to help our country, ”

Sometimes children may voice concern about what will happen to them if a parent does not return. If this occurs, try saying, “You will be well taken care of. You won’t be alone. Let me tell you our plan.”

Some children will be afraid that their country will be attacked again. Tell them this is a real concern and life offers no absolute promises. Nonetheless, reassure them that the government has taken many steps to prevent attacks from terrorists. For younger children, saying that you love them and will keep them safe is often sufficient. For older children, you can discuss specifics such as heightened security in airports and significant public buildings. Always be honest with children. Share your fears and concerns while reassuring them that responsible adults are in charge.


Help children feel personally safe

Help children understand that precautions are being taken to prevent terrorism (e.g., bomb-sniffing dogs, passport checks, heightened airport security) or attacks on the country. While these efforts might seem scary or frustrating to children, explain that these precautions might actually make them safer now than they were before.

If participation in a faith community is part of your family life, talk to your faith leader about how to help your child think about the concepts of death and killing, in age-appropriate terms. This can be very important to calming children’s fears for their own safety and that of loved ones. Try to maintain normal routines and schedules to provide a sense of stability and security.

Stop children from stereotyping people from specific cultures or countries. Children can easily generalize negative statements. Adding tolerance curriculum to school lessons during this time can help prevent harassment of students and improve their sense of safety.

Pay special attention to children who may feel isolated:

Children who are new in school due to relocation may benefit from a special network of “friends” to help orient the student to new school routines and encourage participation in school activities.

Children who are one of a few with parents involved in the military may need extra attention to their feelings of separation and fear of loss.


Respond to changes in behavior

All children will likely display some signs of stress. Some immature, aggressive, oppositional behaviors are normal reactions to the uncertainty of this situation. It is important to maintain consistent expectations for behavior. Be sure children understand that the same rules apply.

Some children may have difficulty at bedtime. Maintain a regular bedtime routine. Be flexible about nightlights, siblings sharing a room, sleeping with special toys, and sitting with your child as they fall asleep. Doing so typically does not cause life-long habits.

Children may play “war,” pretend to blow things up, or include images of violence in artwork and writing. This may be upsetting to adults under current circumstances, but it is a normal way for children to express their awareness of events around them. Gently redirect children away from violent play or efforts to “replay” the terrorist attacks, but don’t be overly disapproving unless the play is genuinely aggressive.

Extra support, consistency, and patience will help children return to routines and their more usual behavior patterns. If children show extreme reactions (aggression, withdrawal, sleeping problems, etc.), talk to your school psychologist regarding the symptoms of severe stress disorders and the possible need for a referral to a mental health agency.

Keep adult issues from overwhelming children

Don’t let your children focus too much of their time and energy on this crisis. If children are choosing to watch the news for hours each evening, find other activities for them. You may also need to watch the news less intensely and spend more time in alternative family activities.

Know the facts about developments in the war and protections against terrorism at home. Do not speculate. Be prepared to answer your children’s questions factually and take time to think about how you want to frame events and your reactions to them.