Talking to Kids about Terror and Anxiety

Talking to Kids about Terror and Anxiety

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How to talk to kids about terrorism
Photo © Tatiana Kostareva/ 123RF

Whether it’s a terrorist attack in Paris or a school shooting in the US, such acts of pure violence are hard to explain to children. As parents, we want to protect them, but we can’t shield them from the brutal realities of life forever. How exactly can we talk to our children about such events without scaring them? We asked Keri Hicks, a behavioral specialist and crisis counselor, to share some of her expertise with INSPIRELLE readers:

All trauma impacts children, and terrorism is a unique type of traumatic event. Like all trauma, it is sudden and unpredictable.  Unlike all trauma, it is inherently violent. Individuals purposefully harm others, which makes it particularly hard to explain. And terrorism stresses the entire community – no one escapes being impacted, even our children.

What should you say?

So how do we talk to our children? How do we know what’s right to say to a five-year old? a nine-year old? or a 14-year old? Each time we are confronted by terrorism, the situation will be unique, and we will once again struggle with what to say. But there are some general tips that can help you navigate these conversations at any developmental stage:

  • Answer questions, but especially with young ones, keep facts and details vague.
    It is important to answer children’s questions so that they feel heard, but we do them harm by telling them more than they can make sense of. It is always better to give too little information. It may, in fact, be enough to satisfy your child.  Do not offer painful or disturbing details, but with older kids ask what they already know. Additionally, do not be afraid to say: “I don’t know” when that is the truest answer you have.
  • Stress safety in all conversations. Remind children that they are safe, and that it is your job to protect them.
    Remember that, at their core, most children’s questions are truly asking one thing – Am I safe? Are the people I love safe? When your child asks, “Why did they have guns?” interpret this as a question about safety. “I don’t know why they used guns. But I know most people don’t have guns and they don’t use guns when they are angry.”
  • Plan for the immediate future.
    Talking about what is to come is normalizing. For instance, if your child is worried about a parent returning home from work in the midst of a crisis, reassure her that Daddy is safe and ask her what you should all eat for dinner when he gets home. Making this simple ‘plan’ for dinner will offer comfort and bring a sense of stability.
  • Be honest about your feelings.
    It’s okay to admit you feel sad or mad or distracted. But make sure your child knows he isn’t the cause of your feelings!
  • Keep children away from visual imagery! Pictures we see on TV, and even in print, stay with us.
    Don’t give your children images they are not ready to witness. (Older children will access it on their own. Ask them what they’ve seen and talk with them about it.)

How can I help my child manage this stress?

There are some measures you can take that are protective during times of stress. These work regardless of the stressor, but are particularly relevant to terrorism:

  • Maintain routines.
    It is best for everyone if you keep your daily routines as close to normal as possible. Maintaining homework and bedtime rituals offers comfort in its familiarity. It sends a message to kids that our world is still safe and orderly.
  • Spend time together.
    During difficult times, be proactive about spending extra time with your children. Offer hugs, cuddles, and playtime, and do it before signs of stress appear.
  • Focus on being helpful.
    Being helpful is good for our state of mind. Give young children tasks around the house. With older children, brainstorm ways to be helpful to the community at large.
  • Make lists.
    Lists help us all feel organized, and can help us to focus on the immediate future. Engage your children in making lists for favorite dinners, activities for the weekend, wish lists for birthday parties, etc. The topic isn’t important, but the act of creating the list is.

Should I be worried?

There are many common and perfectly normal psychological reactions to terrorist attacks. Children may show normal reactions such as sadness and fear. In addition, it is possible for children’s anxiety to manifest itself as physical pain or bad dreams.  Younger children may exhibit some separation anxiety. Older children may be more aggressive or moody.

Children are resilient, and reactions will most often work themselves out over time. Using the above techniques will help children to feel safe and secure and allow them to manage the additional stress. But if you notice changes that are significant, or that do not subside over a few weeks, it may be best to check with a school counselor or other mental health professional.

Keri Hicks
Keri Hicks, LMSW, is a licensed social worker, behavioral specialist, and crisis counselor. Her practice focuses on families and children, and the very complicated task of parenting. In her 15-year career, Keri has overseen clinical services to hundreds of families and children, as well as adults in psychiatric crisis, and those suffering from chronic mental health conditions.

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