How to Talk To Your Child About Terrorism

These days with the media reporting acts of terrorism almost every other day, our children are exposed to quite a bit of it. So, how would we explain it to them?

By Arun Sharma  • 12 min read

How to Talk To Your Child About Terrorism

"Terror attacks in Mumbai; six foreigners among 101 dead" — The Times of India (27 Nov 2008)

"Mumbai’s night of terror without end" — The Indian Express (27 Nov 2008)

These headlines, along with the frightening visuals that were played and replayed non-stop by the media, still linger on in the memory of almost every Indian. It is a well-known fact that any incident or act which threatens human existence always grabs media attention and gets wide coverage. With terrorism being a threat to life, gory visuals of individuals brandishing weapons and shooting from firearms, intimidating people, carrying out beheadings and bomb attacks, and so on is prominently flashed by the media. Along with such visuals, the media also provides details of the aftermath of a tragedy. These details include the number of those killed, the scale of destruction caused, and the dismayed reactions of the general public.

A decade has passed since Mumbai witnessed one of the most horrific terrorist attacks, yet we are unable to take it off our minds. Imagine what a child witnessing the gory visuals would have gone through.

According to Garbarino et al’s article, ‘Children and Terrorism’ published in Social Policy Report (Society for Research in Child Development, 2015), “The worst situation for kids seems to be when they are given information about the threat in such a way that both their fears and their impotence increase.”

Mental health experts from around the world concur that experiencing, witnessing, thinking about or fear of falling a victim to terrorism has a profound impact on young minds. However, the extent of a traumatic event’s effects on children depends on several aspects:

  1. Proximity to the location where the tragedy has taken place
  2. Perception of threat arising from witnessing, watching visuals or hearing about the event
  3. Reaction of parents and other adults to the incident
  4. Relationship with the victims or perpetrators
  5. A child’s level of resilience

How children react to information about terrorism

The different ways in which terrorism or a terrorist attack affects a child depends on her age, coping skills and resilience. Some of the reactions that children of different ages may show are:

Children less than 6 years old: Preschoolers have limited knowledge and understanding. As a result, a traumatic event can make them come up with their own explanations (i.e., indulge in magical thinking), which can be far removed from reality. This can be distressing and frightening to the child. They may also show separation anxiety and regressive behaviours like bed-wetting, throwing tantrums, unwillingness to sleep alone or with lights off, and clingy behaviour.

Children between 7 and 12 years old: School-going children and preteens have more information on any topic as they tend to discuss the issue among themselves or with those around them. Also, they have a better understanding of reality. Yet, they are not mature enough to overcome the effects of the trauma caused by terrorism. As a result, these children may suffer from somatic symptoms such as unexplained dizziness, increased sensitivity such as hypervigilance, earache, and vision problems. Some of them may also show regressive behaviour like preschoolers, worsening of academic performance, defiance and aggression, and anxiety. They may also display a loss of interest in daily activities.

Teenagers: While teens like to voice their opinion about almost everything, they can also be secretive. It is normal for some teens to show little or no reaction to the issue of terrorism or incidents of terrorism, whereas others may feel shocked and discouraged. Some may also become apprehensive about similar attacks happening in the future, and the security of their family and themselves. They may feel anxious, sad, concerned and angry. Most teens have a better understanding of politics and religion, which may also shape their thoughts and views about terrorism and give rise to feelings of revenge.

How to Talk To Your Child About Terrorism

How to talk about terrorism to children

While an act of terrorism may be a one-off case, the media keeps reporting it again and again. As a result, it is almost impossible to keep the news away from children. So, it is important to talk to our children about terrorism and be honest with them. Here’s how you can do it:

Preschoolers: As much as possible, keep your young one away from gory visuals and images flashed on TVs, newspapers or magazines. Since your child is too young to understand the larger picture, talk to her only about the basics in an age-appropriate language.

Engage her in a conversation by asking what she knows. Ask her how she feels, to understand if she is feeling scared or concerned. Tell her that the attack was the act of a bad person who intended to hurt others around him. Then, explain to your child that the incident happened far away from her, so she is safe and shouldn’t fear for her safety. Also, tell her that security forces like police and army are there to help people and protect them.

School-going children and tweens: Once again, for this group of children, it is important for you to know their thoughts. And, speak to them in an age-appropriate language and share details of the incident to help them understand the situation in the right way. Intersperse the negatives of terrorism with positives. For example, if there was a bomb blast, you can talk to your child in the following way: “Yes, there was a bomb blast and quite a few persons died and many got hurt, but a lot of them escaped unhurt. Such incidents do happen once in a while, when someone nursing a grouse does something terrible. But now, the police have the situation under control. The wounded are being given the best possible treatment and most of them will go back to their homes soon.” If there is a discussion going on about the incident on the TV or the radio, you can watch or listen to it with your child and summarise things for him.

Teenagers: Most teens are active on social media and share information among themselves. In fact, quite a few of them tend to have more details than adults may have got through news reports. Ask your teen about what she may have heard and seen. Allow her to not only talk about terrorism/terrorist attacks, but also express her views. Encourage her to ask questions and don’t dismiss the issue of terrorism by saying everything is okay.

However, while talking to your teen about terrorism, do not bring in politics, religion, race or ethnicity. Also, downplay statements that promote hatred among humans from politicians or other sources. Teens are very subjective and may develop strong opinions not only about the perpetrators but also about everything associated with them. Try to promote peace by discouraging generalisations and stereotypes. Encourage your child to take part in candle-light processions against terrorism or make her feel positive by telling her how people are coming together to protest against mindless violence.

Every child is unique. So, while some children may be willing to talk about terrorism, yours may not. In such a case, do not force your child to talk about the subject. Also, for your child to feel normal and secure in the wake of the threat of terrorism, it is important that you maintain your regular schedule. Find positive stories and tell them to your child to help him understand that a crisis doesn’t last forever.

“It can be an overwhelming experience to talk to children about terrorism. In fact, when it comes to terrorism, children either have some negative images in their mind or have no idea of what terrorism really is. So, we need to find the right methods to caution them about how to protect themselves from such potentially traumatic threats or acts.
Children learn best through hands-on activities, drama, theatre, role play and discussions. Using all these activities to teach them can help them release negative emotions and equip them to cope with the issue of terrorism emotionally and physically.
For example, role play can be used to engage children in critical conversations and make them aware so that they feel empowered to protect themselves. We can provide them sensitive information by enacting an imaginary terrorist attack to shape their thinking and interpretation of the whole scenario. For example, enacting the role of a demon/terrorist and explaining what that character depicts; discussing what has led to the character becoming a demon/terrorist; asking the child for changes he would like to bring in the situation by changing the role of the characters. Instead of creating fear or a negative image in children’s minds, help them visualise people reaching out for help during terrorist attacks.
By adopting the ‘Parent as a Coach’ model and creating an imaginary scenario of a terrorist attack, we can ask our children the following questions:
  • If you find yourself in a similar situation, whom would you reach out to for help?
  • Would you be able to stay calm in such a situation?
  • How would people probably react during a terrorist attack?
  • How would you feel?
  • What can be done in such situations?
  • How would you talk about this incident later?
  • What did you learn from this situation?
  • What changes would you bring about in this situation if you had the power to do so?
We should prepare our children to expect the best in the future and yet prepare them to face the worst, such as an act of terrorism or other untoward incidents.  
Parents can also reach out for psychological help if their child has already witnessed a ‘traumatic act’. There are simple exercises like ‘Infinity Loop’ which can help a child cope with post-traumatic fearful images and apprehensions.”  —*Kusum Gandhi Vig

*Kusum Gandhi Vig is a Counselling Psychologist, DMIT Consultant and NLP Master Coach affiliated to International Coach & Trainer Association (ICTA, Europe).

Hope you liked this article. To get expert tips and read interesting articles on a wide variety of parenting topics, subscribe now to our magazine.