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How to talk to children about terrorism

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How to talk to children about terrorism

Following the terrible incident that happened last night at the Manchester Arena, it’s hard to explain to our children something we can hardly grasp ourselves. We have compiled this information to share with you. We hope it is helpful. With yet another horrific terrorist attack, this time so close to home, it is likely that your child may be asking “Why do people want to hurt other people?”

How to answer this heart-breaking 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.” Talking about terrorism is different from other scary news. We are unprepared for random and atrocious displays of violence.

Still, while we may wish we didn’t have to talk about terrorist acts with our children, 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. Children are very intuitive and perceptive. If they don’t hear it on television, other children 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 children feel better.

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

Talk about it more than once.

Be sure your children know they can ask you about difficult topics, because being able to talk about something makes it less scary—and keep the lines of communication open. If you have spoken with your children, 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.

Answer any questions your children 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. “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.

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. Minimise 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. You should answer, ‘They don’t hate us, they don’t even know us. “Otherwise you have children who have absorbed the idea that they personally are hated by scary, very violent people who might come and hurt them.”

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 children cope and understand what’s going on, but we’re also teaching them coping strategies that can last a lifetime. 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 children with your words and behaviour. Try to emphasise that while there are some bad people in the world, there are many more good people. “Sometimes children will ask questions like, ‘Am I going to be okay?’ or ‘Why do these bad people do such terrible things? 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 everyone safe.

Model good coping skills.

You also want to show children that while terrorist attacks are scary, you are okay. Naturally, parents are going to be worried and frightened, but our children watch us very, very carefully to determine how they should feel about things. 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, you could say that while you’re frightened and sad, you’re also comforted by knowing how many people are working hard to keep us safe. Consistency is also important, so keep your routines the same and keep life feeling normal.

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. Some people recommend talking to small children about strategies they use for keeping themselves safe, like wearing a seatbelt in the car, wearing a helmet when riding a bike, and practising fire drills. For older children, talk about ways they can get involved, like holding an event to raise money. Your family can also develop an emergency action plan to make children feel safer. Talk about how you would get in touch if the phones weren’t working, who would pick them up from school etc. All of those things, again, are about empowerment. Also, talk not only about what you would do in a time of crisis but in good times, too. You want to help your children be able to think about the future, and to be hopeful.

Please let us know if you have been directly affected by the events, would like further guidance on talking to your child, or if you are concerned about your child’s emotional welfare.

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