Helping Children Cope with Terrorism

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The media coverage of the terrorism attack was all encompassing. It was on television, social media, news websites and even YouTube. It was hard to escape the video taken of the attack and the immediate aftermath.

The seven year old boy was starting to worry that such an attack could happen in his town. He began to ask his parents where they were going when they left the house and when they would be coming home. He also had to make sure all of the doors were locked at all times so the bad men would not come.

The global nature of the media makes it hard for children to not be exposed to acts of terrorism like what occurred last week in France. This puts parents into a difficult position regarding how to explain these events and reassure children that they will be okay.

Parents can start by modeling the behavior that they want their children to exhibit. Children often look to their parents and other adults to see how to act when they are in situations they have never experienced. If parents seemed worried, then children will start to worry too.

In addition to modeling calm and control, parents can reassure their children that they are safe. They can point out how the events occurred far away and that there are people in the community whose jobs are to protect everyone from harm. These people include the police, firefighters, doctors, and emergency workers.

Despite assurances, it is important for parents to acknowledge something did happen. Children should be told the truth and in as factual a manner as possible. This means trying to minimize speculation about what happened or where another attack might occur. Rather, parents should focus on the facts that the terrorist attack was a serious event and that terrorism is real though also emphasize that the chances are very low there will be an attack in the local community.

Parents’ explanation of the event needs to be appropriate to the child’s age. Younger children just need brief, simple information along with reassurances that their day to day lives will not be affected. Older children will probably have more questions about their safety and will need help separating the reality of the situation from fantasy.

Even when children understand the facts, they still may have difficulty dealing with their feelings. Many will feel angry that innocent people were hurt. Parents can let them know that it is natural to feel angry at the people who do these acts. However, this is a good time to discuss the difference between tolerance and justice versus vengeance.

Children who do not understand the difference may feel the need to act out their anger on students who are of a similar ethnicity or cultural background as the terrorists. It is important for adults to stop any bullying or teasing behaviors of children from a particular ethnic or cultural group immediately. The message needs to be made that we live in a diverse society with people from all types of backgrounds. The only way we can get along is to be tolerant of those who are different from us.

During this whole process, parents need to take time to listen to what their children are telling them. They can encourage their children to explore their feelings about prejudice and hate and how it can impact others.

Children can also be encouraged to use other outlets for their feelings. Making and sending get well cards or writing thank you notes to all of the emergency responders can help children feel like they are having a positive impact and allows them to work through some of their feelings.

Other steps parents can take if their children seem to be particularly affected by the event include maintaining a normal daily routine. Children thrive in a predictable environment, particularly when there is perceived chaos in the world.

Parents also should monitor their children’s emotional state especially if their children are more vulnerable. Children who are more vulnerable are ones who have experienced previous trauma, lost loved ones, or have a history of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Unfortunately terrorism attacks occur all too frequently. Children are likely to be exposed to these attacks, particularly through media. Parents need to be aware that children can get very concerned by these acts and that steps need to be taken for children to better understand the situation and how to deal with it. The resulting discussions between parents and their children can lead to a better understanding of tolerance and the result of prejudice and hate.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on November 20, 2015

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