Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Terrorism: Explaining The Seemingly Unexplainable


Terrorist attacks are hard enough for adults to understand, let alone our children.  As parents, our instinct is to shield our children from bad news but sometimes, particularly in the case of an act of terrorism, this is not possible.  There’s extensive coverage on television, and on social media and our kids regularly overhear adult conversations.

We’ve scoured the media to find the best advice around reassuring young children in the aftermath of an attack, and have summarized our findings in this article.  Obviously, how you deal with this at home depends on a multitude of factors that are specific to your own family, but we hope some of the information is useful.

In the event of a terror attack, children of all ages are processing the same overall issues, but the perspective children adopt and the way they respond will vary based on their age and maturity levels and whether they have been personally affected by the incident.  If your child is very young and has not had any exposure to information about terrorism then introducing them to it is not a great idea, according to Dr David Hilliker a pediatric psychologist with the Mayo Clinic Children’s Centre.  That said, children of this age may have heard things from their friends / teachers at nursery or seen media coverage.  If you have a sense that your child may have had exposure to this type of information it’s important to ask them what they have heard and how they feel about it.   “You may have heard something really sad happened in France and I am wondering what you think about that?”  Being able to talk about something makes it intrinsically less scary.  Very young children’s perspectives are quite egocentric – they want to know that they are ok and that the people around them are going to be ok, too.  Look for signs as to how distressed your child might be, and gauge your response to your child’s needs – don’t give more information than is necessary but recognize that having sufficient information can help reduce confusion and make a child feel happier and more secure.  Remember, you should try not to tell your child how to feel, it is more helpful to them if you talk them about how to deal with their feelings.  Similarly, recognize that the way you react will probably impact your child – try to remain calm and avoid being overly emotional in your own responses.  It’s sensible to avoid conversations about religion, politics etc with very young children – these subjects are really not relevant unless you’re talking to an older child / teenager.   Once you’ve initiated the conversation it’s important to ensure that you keep the lines of communication open.

Preschool children who have seen images on the news or overheard conversations about terrorism may worry that it’s happening very nearby and is an imminent threat to their personal safety and that of the people they care about.  It’s important for parents to find a balance between helping their child to feel safe and acknowledging the existence of violence and danger in the world and this must be done in a manner appropriate to the child’s ability to understand.  The guiding principles seem to be firstly, to encourage children to accept their fear.  Explain that it’s natural to feel scared in this type of situation and get them to talk about why they feel the situation is scary.  Explain to them that whilst the situation may be very frightening it is extremely unlikely to happen to them or anyone they know.  Helping them to develop a sense of perspective on the situation is very helpful “the reason it’s on the news so much and so many people are talking about it is because it’s such an unusual thing to happen”.  If they have heard about specific attacks (eg Paris) you might want to explain that Paris is a long way away and you would need to fly or get a train to get there.  It’s also worth pointing out that there are lots of people who work very hard to ensure that they, and all of their friends and family are kept safe and that the majority of people in the world want peace.

As any parent of a pre-schooler is aware, a favourite question tends to be “why”.  “Why did the attacks happen?”  “Why would terrorists kill people?”  The experts seem to agree that it’s best to try to keep things simple, so you might want to consider a response along the lines of “there are a few violent people in the world who are full of hate and want everyone to see the world the way they see it.  Very, very rarely they carry out attacks and kill people to try to frighten normal people into changing the way they live.”
Slightly older children may feel angry about the attacks, and it is important to make them see that the target of their anger should be terrorists, not Muslims, Arabs or Middle Easterners – stereotypes and prejudice can easily grow from anger and fear.

So what active steps can a parent take to limit the distress terror attacks may cause to a child?

1.    Limit television time, so that children are only getting age-appropriate information.  Confine your own viewing to times when children are less likely to be present. Violence can have a lasting effect on children even if they are only hearing about it through the media – we need to be careful with the images that our children see and hear about.

2.    Focus on the positive, rather than fear or negative messages.  Talk to your child about people pulling together to help each other in the aftermath of an attack and the work people do around the world to keep everyone safe.

3.    Sticking to regular routines will help children feel safe.  They act as positive signals that even though awful things have happened we can continue to engage in activities that make us feel well and signal safety and normalcy e.g. normal bedtimes and school routines.

4.    If your child is particularly anxious and wants to be unusually close to you (e.g. sleeping in your bed or doing chores with you) then it’s ok to make changes to your normal routine for a short time, but make it clear that this is unusual and negotiate a quick return to your usual patterns of behaviour.

5.    Make it a priority to watch your child and understand their behaviour.  If your child manifests some behavioural and emotional changes, including bad behaviour, sleeplessness, nightmares and general anxiety, recognize these as signs that extra reassurance and care may be needed.  Let your child know it’s ok to be upset.  If you have more than one child, bear in mind that your children may not all react in the same way.

6.    Create a calm and relaxed environment in your home through your own demeanor.  This will help your child to feel safe.


Unfortunately we can’t control the incidence of terror attacks.  We can, however, manage our responses to them, and those of our children and ensure that they feel as safe and secure as possible.


With thanks to:
Dr David Hilliker a pediatric psychologist with the Mayo Clinic Children’s Centre
Sally Peck – The Telegraph
Anne Perkins – The Guardian
University of Virginia Curry School of Education
Parents.com – Susan Stiffleman Marriage and Family therapist
Forbes.com




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