Explaining terrorism to children
October 3, 2009
All children need the support of caring adults to help them deal with crisis.
Emotional responses vary in nature and severity from child to child. Nonetheless, there are some common ways in how children (and adults) feel when their lives are impacted by acts of terrorism.
Fear: Fear may be the main reaction - fear for the safety of you and your family as well as those involved. A child’s picture of terrorism may include a bomb dropped on their home. Their worries may seem unreasonable, but to them, they are quite possible. Children will hear rumors at school and may let their imaginations run wild. They may think the worst, however unrealistic it may be. The threat of further terrorism or war may also add to their fear. Other fears may be experienced as a result of media coverage (radio, television, newspapers). Fears or concerns may be about friends or relatives in the immediate vicinity of the terrorism.
Loss of control: Terrorist actions are something over which children - and most adults - have no control. Lack of control can be overwhelming and confusing. Children may grasp at any control which they can have.
Terrorist actions are something over which children - and most adults - have no control. Lack of control can be overwhelming and confusing. Children may grasp at any control which they can have.
Anger: Anger is not an unusual reaction. Unfortunately, anger is often expressed to those with whom children are most secure. Children may be angry at people in other countries for their acts of terrorism. Children should be allowed to express their feelings during this time.
Anger is not an unusual reaction. Unfortunately, anger is often expressed to those with whom children are most secure. Children may be angry at people in other countries for their acts of terrorism. Children should be allowed to express their feelings during this time.
Loss of stability: Terrorism interrupts the natural order of things. It is very unsettling. Stability is gone, and this is very threatening. It can destroy trust and upset balance and a sense of security.
Terrorism interrupts the natural order of things. It is very unsettling. Stability is gone, and this is very threatening. It can destroy trust and upset balance and a sense of security.
Uncertainty: Children who have relatives or friends living where tragedy has struck will be concerned that they do not know if their loved ones are safe. The lack of information over the next several days will only increase the uncertainty. If a child has suffered other losses or traumatic events, memories of those events may surface.
Children who have relatives or friends living where tragedy has struck will be concerned that they do not know if their loved ones are safe. The lack of information over the next several days will only increase the uncertainty. If a child has suffered other losses or traumatic events, memories of those events may surface.
Acknowledge your children’s 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" may help.
Try to recognize the feelings underlying your children’s actions and put them into words. Say something like, "I can see you are feeling really scared about this."
Recognize that your child may be fearful for his/her immediate safety. Reassure your child that the government, the military, and other adults are taking actions to ensure our safety.
Sometimes children may have an overwhelming fear that they are unable to put into words which you may need to voice for them. For instance, if a parent is away, children may wonder what will become of them if the parent does not return. Try saying, "You never have to worry because we/you will be well taken care of. You won’t be alone. Let me tell you our plan…"
At times when your children are most upset, don’t deny the seriousness of the situation. Saying to children, "Don’t cry, everything will be okay," does not reflect how the child feels and does not make them feel better. Nevertheless, don’t forget to express hope and faith that things will be alright.
Older children in particular may need help identifying what they individually believe about war and terrorism. Questions such as "How could anyone do something like this?" may need discussion.
Help your children put their fears in perspective.
Help children to feel personally safe.
Discuss what is realistic modern technology versus science fiction.
Help children understand that precautions are being taken to prevent terrorism (e.g., bomb sniffing dogs, passport checks, heightened airport security) which might actually make them safer now than they usually are.
Try to maintain normal routines to provide a sense of stability and security.
Help children to feel a sense of control by taking some action.
Send letters, cookies or magazines through relief agencies to those who have been impacted.
If a family member gets called away, make plans for some special activities:
- Gathering with other families who are also missing a loved one helps provide support for you as well as for your children.
- Special parent and child time can provide an extra sense of security which might be badly needed. Let your child know that you will set aside a particular half-hour each day to play. Make the time as pleasant and child-centered as possible. Return phone calls later and make your child the real focus of that special time.
- Involve children in planning how to cope. Control and ownership are fostered when children help to plan strategies for dealing with a situation.
Prepare for difficulties with children at night.
Maintain regular bedtime routines such as storytime to provide a sense of security. Special stuffed animals or blankets may be especially important right now.
Sit near your child until he/she falls asleep for a few nights. Gradually withdraw this support by checking back in two minutes and continuing to lengthen this time until your child feels secure again.
A light may be needed in or near your child’s room.
Siblings may want to sleep in the same room until they feel more secure again.
Don’t let your children focus too much of their time and energy on news coverage of the terrorist attacks. If children are choosing to watch CNN 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.
Use outside support services if your child has a severe reaction. Your school counselor, school social worker, or school psychologist can assist or provide names of other professionals trained to deal with children. Religious and community organizations and mental health providers are possible resources.
Take time for yourself and try to deal with your own reactions to the situation as fully as possible. This, too, will help your children.
Always be honest with your child and do not be afraid to talk to others about your fears and concerns.
Student safety center
When crisis hits: media attention on traumatized students