How to Talk to Your Kids About Terrorism
Xavier Amador, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and professor at Teachers College Columbia University in New York City. He is founder and director of the LEAP™ Institute and is frequently consulted by national media during times of tragedy.
In the days and weeks following a terror attack like the Boston Marathon or 9/11, our children need our help to keep them safe, psychologically and emotionally, from the aftermath of these events. Kids are vulnerable to increased fear and depression simply from hearing about terrorist attacks. Questions like "Who and where are these evil people?" and "Will it happen to my family or me?" are common, but they will not necessarily surface in obvious ways. How we respond to them can make a big difference, so I am sharing important lessons I've learned from my experience helping families after terror attacks. I also suggest you follow some of the advice I give below for yourself, as well for your child.
If your child or children haven't asked, don't push, but do ask if they heard about it. (Trust me, they now know about it if they go to school, use the Internet, or watch TV.) Usually, though not always, your child will let you know when he or she is ready to talk. If they mention it, ask what they know about what happened and if they have any questions.
What should you say? If you're scared this is likely to happen to your child, don't say anything to them yet. Wait to talk to them until you have dealt with your more irrational (though understandable) fears. As I've said before, round-the-clock news coverage of an exceedingly rare event doesn't mean the thing happens every day. Your family's chances of being the victim of a terrorist attack are far, far less than being killed by lightning. Do you arm your kids with portable lightning rods? Reassure your children that this is not something they have to worry about.
Once you are calm, answer your child's questions simply, honestly, and directly (using age-appropriate language, of course). Focus on safety, not fanning the flames of ethnic or religious hatred, and acknowledge the sadness they might be feeling. These events are not only scary, but also very sad.
When stories appear, turn off the TV or radio. Monitor web use to limit media exposure. Research shows that children who are exposed to significant amounts of media coverage are much more likely to suffer from traumatic stress symptoms. Seeing and hearing ongoing coverage is repetitively traumatic and harmful.
Look for Warning Signs
Some kids simply won't talk about it. They will express their reactions differently. Be on the lookout for anxiety or distress. In younger children you will see separation anxiety, disruptive behavior, sleep difficulties, renewed bed-wetting and/or increased tantrums, more crying, etc. You may hear about more stomachaches, headaches, and requests to stay home from school. Older kids may exhibit increased moodiness or irritability.
These warning signs can crop up months afterwards. What triggers these reactions isn't the bombings themselves, it's what's going on between your child's ears and in his or her heart: thinking about it, worrying, or having fleeting feelings of fear, hatred, and depression.
A word about hatred: If you hear your child voicing angry feelings, that's natural, and if dealt with as I described above, healing. If the anger is followed by hatred of the group ultimately found responsible, that's not healthy. Hatred is a psychological poison that will harm your child, especially when it is aimed at a group of people who may belong to a different ethnic or religious group.
Don't Be Afraid to Ask Questions
If you see warning signs, don't be afraid to ask these type of questions:
- Have you been thinking about what happened at the marathon in Boston (or other event)?
- Do you feel safe when you're outside our home?
- Do you ever wonder about dying?
Children are blessed with colorful imaginations that can also run wild and create terrifying scenarios. Just because they are not talking about it doesn't mean they are not thinking about it or having horrific fantasies about what could happen to them and their loved ones. The stakes are high. Months and years of never having talked about the fears that may be taking root will cause unnecessary pain, fear, hatred, and even symptoms of stress and post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. By uprooting those toxic thoughts, weeding the psychological garden of your child's growing mind, you can give him or her a more balanced personal understanding of what a tragedy means. You can teach them that it's a time for sadness, coming together, compassion, and conversation.
Don't force children to talk about it. Listen to what they're saying and not saying. Watch for warning signs. Most of all, validate your child's feelings by saying things like, “I can see why you feel so scared,” while also gently and repeatedly reassuring them, “You're safe, our family is safe, and so are your friends and teachers. We are all working very hard to make sure we stay safe.”