Talking to Children About Terrorism

23/05/2017 | Natalie Jewitt

Guidance for parents

As a parent waking up to the shocking news of the terrorist attack last night at the MEN arena in Manchester it's hard to know when and how best to talk to our children about terrorism. 

The impact of what happened last night will ripple out to many of our children and young people and it's important that we empower our children with the knowledge and understanding they need to cope with this.  

We want them to know that they can talk to us about any worries they have and we will listen and help them to understand and express their feelings and thoughts about terrorism. By developing this open communication and connection with our kids we also invite them to join with us in making sense of any worries, thought or questions they have following this attack.  It's not always possible to make sense of terrorism as an adult, let alone a child, but what we can do is unite with our children and let them know that we can face this together.

So to anyone wondering today how to approach discussions about the terrorism attack last with their child here's some advice/guidance: 

1. Find out what they already know or have heard and start that open conversation.

Our children have many sources of information and therefore they may have heard about the events of last night from friends, the news, radio, over hearing adults conversations so start by finding out what they already know.  Ways to do this depend on your child's age and understanding but for children around 4-6 years asking about "the best thing and worst thing they have been told today" can be a way of finding out what they already know and inviting them to share that with you.  With older kids it may be helpful to be more direct by saying "Something bad happened last night did you hear about it at school or on the news?"

2. Keep it simple

Especially for younger kids your information needs to be simple, honest and age appropriate.  We want to help aid their understanding without creating confusion...then allow them to ask questions they may have.  Answer questions honestly but age appropriate for your child.  Be aware that it will not be a one off conversation they may go away process the information and need to come back to you to ask more questions. Let them know this is normal and that's ok.

3. Help them understand and express their feelings

As adults we will also have feelings and thoughts about what happened last night and our children do to.  Help them to understand their feelings and let them know it's okay to talk about those feelings to you.  If they talk about feelings such as feeling worried/scared, avoid saying things like "don't worry" and instead say "I hear that you feel scared right now" then help them to gain perspective on how rare the events of last night are. But make sure you have listened and heard them first.

4. Help them gain perspective

One simple strategy I use in therapy with kids who are worried about an event is to openly and honestly talk about how frequent/likely an event is to happen.  For example find out together how many people live in the UK and then ask them how many people have carried out a terrorist attack. It's important that we help our children to gain this perspective as it helps to break down the fear and empowers them with the knowledge that for every bad person in the world there are millions of good.  I often create a visual of this also by getting a child to put as many dots as they can on a piece of paper to represent all the people in the UK then we think about how many do bad things.  Make a pie chart for older kids and divide it up together into sections of how many people may do bad things, how many are terrorists etc and then how many good people there are in the world. These can be really powerful ways of gaining perspective for kids and parents. 

5. Invite them to talk

Let them know they can talk to you or ask any questions they have.  Some kids may find it easier to write questions down or even text.  Whatever the method, the important bit is that they know they are able to and they have a mechanism that works for them. 

6. Modelling 

As parents we are likely to also be feeling anxious following a terrorist attack.  Be aware of your own thoughts and feelings and whenever possible model your own coping strategies to your kids, such as taking a moment out to do the gaining perspective task above.  Try to work through the anxiety you feel, rather than avoid situations, as we know that when we respond to anxiety with avoidance of something the something gets bigger and more powerful.  If you need help/support with your own feelings of anxiety know that there is support out there both within the NHS and privately.

7. Be aware 

News reports on TV and radio are all around us and whilst I would always advice parents to talk through a child's worries with them and not avoid these discussions, it is also important that this is done at an age appropriate level.  Keep in mind that TV, radio and other media sources will not always share information in an age appropriate way. So be aware of what and how much material they are exposed to and balance this with the conversations you have with them.  For kids around 4-6 years I believe it's best they hear the information they need to know from a loving parent rather than from a news report.  

8. Social media

If your child has access to social media they will be more aware than most about the events of last night. Talk to them about what they have seen on social media and how they feel. Talk to them about having healthy breaks from social media to ensure they are monitoring both the information they are seeing and reading and their own feelings and thoughts in response to this.

9. Listen and hear 

As parents we can sometimes be consumed with what we should say or not say and within this we fail to create space for our kids to talk and us to just listen. Be aware of this and make sure your child has space to voice their thoughts and feelings. 

10. Drip drip approach

Know that this will not be a one off conversation, your child will need to revisit this conversation many times and ask more questions.  I think what's so important in all families is that open communication is encouraged and modelled.  If our kids feel able to talk and we give them the knowledge they need we empower and unite with them. 

Please share this with any parents you feel may find it helpful.

I've also attached a useful piece of information about children's reactions to disasters.

Dr Natalie Jewitt Jenby's

Article written by:
Dr Natalie Jewitt, CPsychol, BSc (Hons) DClin Psych

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