of attacks in different places around the world
may prompt questions among children about war
and terrorism. Many questions parents have about
terrorism, including how to explain terrorism
to children, how much information to give, how
to assess children's emotional reactions and
how to provide comfort and a sense of safety
are all discussed in a variety of articles below.
Kids ask lots of tough questions but questions
about acts of terrorism or war are some of the
hardest to answer. Especially when the news
provides immediate and graphic details, parents
wonder if they should protect their children
from the grim reality, explore the topic, or
share their personal beliefs. Professionals
may wonder how much information to provide or
how to help children if they are confused or
troubled. And all adults must reconcile the
dilemma of advocating non-violence while explaining
terrorism and why nations maintain armies and
engage in war. This guide helps answer some
common questions and concerns parents and professionals
have about talking to children about terrorism
How do children react to news about
war or terrorism?
Children's age and individual personality influence
their reactions to stories they hear and images
they see about violent acts in the newspapers
and on television. With respect to age, preschool
age children may be the most upset by the sights
and sounds they see and hear. Children this
age confuse facts with their fantasies and fear
of danger. They can easily be overwhelmed. They
do not yet have the ability to keep things in
perspective and may be unable to block out troubling
thoughts. School age children can certainly
understand the difference between fantasy and
reality but may have trouble keeping them separate
at certain times. Therefore they may equate
a scene from a scary movie with news footage
and thus think that the news events are worse
than they really are. They also may not realize
a single incident is rebroadcast and so may
think many more people are involved than is
the case. In addition, the graphic and immediate
nature of news make it seem as if the conflict
is close to home - perhaps around the corner.
Middle school and high school age children may
be interested and intrigued by the politics
of a situation and feel a need to take a stand
or action. They may show a desire to be involved
in political or charitable activities related
to the violent acts.
In addition to age and maturity, children's
personality style and temperament can influence
their response. Some children are naturally
more prone to be fearful and thus news of a
dangerous situation may heighten their feelings
of anxiety. Some children or teens may be more
sensitive to, or knowledgeable about, the situation
if they are the same nationality of those who
are fighting. Children who know someone involved
in the area of the acts may be especially affected
Children and teens will also personalize the
news they hear, relating it to events or issues
in their own lives. Young children are usually
most concerned about separation from parents,
about good and bad, and fears of punishment.
They may ask questions about the children they
see on the news who are alone or bring up topics
related to their own good and bad behavior.
Middle school children are in the midst of peer
struggles and are developing a mature moral
outlook. Concerns about fairness and punishment
will be more prevalent among this age group.
Teens consider larger issues related to ethics,
politics, and even their own involvement in
a potential response through the armed services.
Teenagers, like adults, may become reflective
about life, re-examining their priorities and
At the other extreme, some children become
immune to, or ignore, the suffering they see
in the news. They can get overloaded and become
numb due to the repetitive nature of the reports.
Exposure to multiple forms of violence, such
as video games, makes it more difficult to believe
in, and understand the real human cost of tragedies.
Parents and professionals should be on the lookout
for children's extreme solutions based on what
they have seen in movies. A macho or impulsive
response is ill advised and should be put into
the context of the real conflict.
How can I tell what a child is thinking
or feeling about the terrorist act or war?
It is not always possible to judge if or when
children are scared or worried about news they
hear. Children may be reluctant to talk about
their fears or may not be aware of how they
are being affected by the news. Parents can
look for clues as to how their child is reacting.
War play is not necessarily an indication of
a problem. It is normal for children to play
games related to war and this may increase in
response to current events as they actively
work with the information, imitate, act out,
or problem solve different scenarios. Regressive
behaviors; when children engage in behaviors
expected of a younger age child, overly aggressive
or withdrawn behaviors, nightmares , or an obsession
about violence may indicate extreme reactions
needing closer attention.
Addressing a child's particular, personal fears
is also necessary. Parents should not make assumptions
about what worries their child. Parents are
often surprised by a child's concerns, e.g.
worrying about being shot while at Sunday school,
or refusing to go on a boat ride after seeing
a ship get attacked.
How should I talk to children about
a terrorist act or war?
Contrary to parents' fears, talking about violent
acts will not increase a child's fear. Having
children keep scared feelings to themselves
is more damaging than open discussion. As with
other topics, consider the age and level of
understanding of the child when entering into
a discussion. Even children as young as 4 or
5 know about violent acts but all children may
not know how to talk about their concerns. It
is often necessary for parents to initiate the
dialogue themselves. Asking children what they
have heard or think is a good way to start.
Parents should refrain from lecturing or teaching
about the issues until there has been some exploration
about what is most important, confusing, or
troublesome to the child. Adults should look
for opportunities as they arise, for example
when watching the news together. You can also
look for occasions to bring up the topic of
when relevant related topics arise. For example,
when people in a television show are arguing.
Discussion about larger issues such as tolerance,
difference , and non-violent problem solving
can also be stimulated by news. Learning about
a foreign culture or region also dispels myths
and more accurately points out similarities
Far off violent events can stimulate a discussion
of non-violent problem solving for problems
closer to home. For instance helping children
negotiate how to share toys or take turns in
the baseball lineup demonstrates productive
strategies for managing differences. Older children
may understand the issues when related to a
community arguing over a proposed shopping mall.
Effective ways of working out these more personal
situations can assist in explaining and examining
the remote violent situations.
Adults should also respect a child's wish not
to talk about particular issues until ready.
Attending to nonverbal reactions, such as facial
expression or posture, play behavior, verbal
tone, or content of a child's expression offer
important clues to a child's reactions and unspoken
need to talk.
Answering questions and addressing fears does
not necessarily happen all at once in one sit
down session or one history lesson plan. New
issues may arise or become apparent over time
and thus discussion about war should be done
on an ongoing and as needed basis.
Should I let a child watch television
or read about terrorism or war?
Parents and professionals can assume the majority
of children have access to information or hear
about current events that are making the news.
However, understanding the child's age and personality
style determines how much direct access adults
should provide. Watching, reading, or examining
the news together is the best way to gauge a
child's reaction and to help a child or teen
deal with the information. In discussing what
is viewed or heard when together, parents and
professionals become informed about how the
children processed the material and how they
feel about it. It also provides a ready forum
for discussing the topic of war and violence.
Correcting misinformation and discussing personal
feelings is then more profitable.
Should I tell my child my opinion?
Terrorism and war provide a perfect opportunity
to discuss the issues of prejudice, stereotyping
and aggression and nonviolent ways to handle
situations. Unfortunately it is easy to look
for and assign blame, in part to make a situation
understandable and feel it was preventable.
Adults must monitor their own communications,
being careful to avoid making generalizations
about groups of individuals. This dehumanizes
the situation. Open, honest discussion is recommended.
But adults must be mindful of stating their
opinions as fact or absolutes. Discussions should
allow for disagreement and airing of different
points of view. Feeling their opinion is wrong
or misunderstood can cause children to disengage
from dialogue or make them feel they are bad
or stupid. In discussing how war or terrorism
often stems from interpersonal conflict, misunderstanding,
or differences in religion or culture, it is
important to model tolerance. Accepting and
understanding others' opinions is a necessary
step in nonviolent conflict resolution.
Distinguishing between patriotism and opinion
can be helpful. One can disagree with a cause
or action but still believe in the right to
have arms or feel it is important to defend
a country. The manner in which issues are resolved
is separate from one's allegiance or personal
How can I reassure a child?
Don't dismiss a child's fears. Children can
feel embarrassed or criticized when their fears
are minimized. Exploring the issues and positive
ways of coping help children master their fear
and anxiety. Parents and professionals can reassure
children with facts about how people are protected
(for example, by police men in the community
or the president who meets with world leaders)
and individual safety measures that can be taken
(for example, reinforcing the importance of
talking to an adult when bullied). Avoiding
"what if" fears by offering reliable,
honest information is best. Maintaining routines
and structure is also reassuring to children
and helps normalize an event and restore a sense
What should I do if we know someone
in the area of conflict or terrorism?
Having a personal relationship with someone
in the area of conflict or target of terrorism
can cause additional particularly troubling
feelings. When a friend or relative is involved
in a traumatic newsworthy event others often
search for information. It is advisable to find
the most reliable information source and filter
out both the quantity and quality of the potentially
inaccurate news provided to the general public.
Having accurate information informs one of the
best way to communicate with the person and
the possibility of sending aid. Taking things
one step at a time, being realistic about what
is known rather than preparing for the worst
can be difficult but helpful. Imagining the
worst does not prevent it from happening and
can turn an unpredictable situation into an
unnecessarily bleak one. Obtaining support from
others in a similar situation by sharing information
or feelings helps some people feel less alone
and validates their distressing feelings. Adults
can share their fears but must manage their
own distraught reactions so as not to scare
their children or students. Engaging in some
normal activities of life, especially for eating,
sleeping, school and work provides stability
and predictability at a time when events make
life seem confusing.