How to Talk to Kids About Terrorism

It's hard to explain to our kids something we can hardly grasp ourselves. Child experts share what you need to know about talking to kids about terrorism.

father comforting young son
Photo: Peter Cade/Getty Images

Yet another horrific and senseless act of violence has taken place—this time in Las Vegas, where an apparent lone gunman opened fire on a crowd of concert-goers and killed more than 50 people and wounded more than 400 others. It's the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. It also brings to mind another tragic and sensless act of violence that took place at a concert: The attack in Manchester, England, where children were among the 22 victims of a suicide bombing that took place at an Ariana Grande concert. When such senseless, devestating events make headlines, it's natural for children to hear about it and ask questions like, "Why do people want to hurt us?" How to answer this heartbreaking question is something no parent is naturally prepared to do.

"We're all looking for ways to explain something that's impossible to explain—because we don't understand it," says marriage and family therapist Susan Stiffelman, author of Parenting With Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition) and Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. Talking about terrorism is different from other scary news, Stiffelman adds, because we're accustomed to natural disasters, but we're unprepared for random and atrocious displays of violence.

Still, while we may wish we didn't have to talk about terrorist acts with our innocent kids, it's a necessity. Due to the world we live in and the nonstop news cycle, parents must develop the tools to discuss the topic with their children. These tips can help:

Find out what they know.

We'd all like our children to remain blissfully unaware of terrorism, but don't expect that you can shield them from it. "Kids are very intuitive and perceptive," says child development and parenting expert Denise Daniels, who has helped children around the globe cope with losses as a result of tragedies such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. "If they don't hear it on television, other kids are going to be talking about it. They can see that their parents maybe are more concerned than usual, paying more attention to the TV. They may overhear adult conversations. Even if they don't know what it is, they still know something's happening. Having information can actually help take away the confusion, and help kids feel better."

Let the information they have launch the conversation, and then let kids steer the discussion with their questions and concerns. "Say, 'You may have heard something really sad happened, and I wanted to know what you had heard about that,'" Stiffelman says. If you're not sure they've heard anything—and don't want to open a can of worms—just ask about their day, or if they heard anything interesting, and see if they bring it up.

Talk about it more than once.

Be sure your kids know they can ask you about difficult topics, because being able to talk about something intrinsically makes it less scary—and keep the lines of communication open, Stiffelman says. "Even if you have spoken with your kids, it's important to keep talking to them because they are at risk of getting a lot of misinformation from their peers."

Keep it simple.

Limit TV so you know your children are only getting age-appropriate information. American Academy of Pediatrics CEO Karen Remley, MD, MBA, MPH, FAAP, issued a statement last November warning against exposing kids to news reports: "As pediatricians, we know that violence can have lasting effects on children even if they are only learning about it through the media. The AAP urges everyone to take care with the images that children see and hear about."

Answer any questions your kids have in language they can understand. "A 4-year-old would say, 'Something bad happened,' and there are 'bad guys,' because developmentally, a child that age would be thinking bad guys, good guys, and there's nothing in between," Daniels says. "You can say, 'Yes, there were some bad people, and they hurt some people because they were very angry, and we know'—and this is the teachable moment—'that it's never okay to hurt ourselves or to hurt somebody else because we're feeling angry.' Keep it very simple."

Bring it to their level.

Then, relate what happened to experiences kids can understand. For example, Daniels suggests: "'You know when you get in a fight with your friend because you want the toy, and she wants the toy at the same time? And only one of you can have it? People fight and they get upset when they can't have what they want, or a loved one is hurt, and these are all different reasons why people get in big fights.'"

Avoid getting into conversations about religion, politics, or other subjects, which really aren't relevant unless you're talking to an older child or teen. "Children are very egocentric, and they want to know that they're okay, and the people around them are going to be okay," Stiffelman says. "Basically, minimize it. Something sad happened. People were hurt and killed, but people are looking after them and we are all very safe. That's the main question you want to be addressing."

Pay attention to the types of questions your child is asking, too. If a child is asking, "Why do people want to hurt us?" or "Why do the terrorists hate us?" the key is to notice that the child is making this personal, Stiffelman says. "You should answer, 'They don't hate us, they don't even know us,'" she says. "Otherwise you have children who have absorbed the idea that they personally are hated by scary, very violent people who might crawl in their window at night."

Encourage them to express how they feel.

Listen to their worries and help them name their feelings. "What we're trying to do is help kids cope and understand what's going on, but we're also teaching them coping strategies that can last a lifetime," Daniels says. "Young children need to have a vocabulary for what they're feeling. How do you express feelings? What do you do when you're angry? What do you do if you're sad? How do you respect people's differences?"

Reassure them.

While you can acknowledge that what happened is scary, you want to reassure your kids with your words and behavior. First, put it in perspective. "A lot of times I'll say to kids, 'You know, the reason it's on the news so much is because it's such an unusual occurrence," Daniels says.

Next, emphasize that while there are some bad people in the world, there are many more good people. "Sometimes kids will ask questions like, 'Am I going to be okay?' or 'Why do these bad guys do such terrible things? Will life ever be the same again? And could this happen here?'" Daniels says. "We don't always have the answers to those questions, and you can say that, but you can also identify all the people who are working very hard to keep our country safe. The men and women in the Armed Forces, the President, the police, the firemen, teachers at school." Make a list with your child of all the good people you know to show her what a great support system she has.

Model good coping skills.

You also want to show them that while terrorist attacks are scary, you are okay. "Naturally, parents are going to be rattled and frightened, but our children watch us very, very carefully to determine how they should feel about things," Stiffelman says. "If our tone of voice conveys confidence in the people who are ensuring our safety and in stepping up the efforts to prevent this from happening again, then our children are reassured."

If you're not feeling confident, though, don't fake it. Being disingenuous can actually make kids more unsettled, because they can sense when words don't line up with feelings. Instead, say that while you're frightened and sad, you're also comforted by knowing how many people are working hard to keep us safe. "How we manage our own worries is going to be the biggest thing we can do," she says, "so if parents need help dealing with it, they should be getting it, but not in the presence of their kids."

Consistency is also important, so keep your routines the same and keep life feeling normal. Kids are very rooted in the now," Stiffelman says. "Because terrorism is a very abstract idea, preschoolers are only going to be impacted if we are."

Empower them.

Terrorist attacks are scary because they make us feel out of control, so help your children focus on areas where they do have power over their safety. Daniels recommends talking to little kids about strategies they use for keeping themselves safe, like wearing a seatbelt in the car, wearing a helmet when riding a bike, and practicing fire drills. "Simple little things like that all help kids think, 'Well, gosh, there are things I can do to keep myself safe.'"

For older kids, talk about ways they can get involved, like writing notes of support to kids in the country that was attacked or holding a bake sale to raise money for an aid organization.

Your family can also develop an emergency action plan to make kids feel safer. "Have kids get batteries for flashlights, have water stored somewhere, talk about how you would get in touch if the phones weren't working, who would pick them up from school," Daniels says. "All of those things, again, are about empowerment." Plus, talk not only about what you would do in a time of crisis but in good times, too, Daniels says, whether it's discussing what they want to do for summer vacation, the books they want to read this year, or who is coming over next for a playdate. "You want to help your kids be able to think about the future, and to be hopeful."

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