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The Perspective
The Perspective

November 17, 2015

How To Talk To Kids About Terrorist Attacks

Dr. Sandra L. Mendlowitz, PhD., C.Psych.- Psychologist, The Hospital for Sick Children; Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto.

We all know how scary the world can be. Terrorism is an unfortunate reality of our world today. As adults we process the information of yet another senseless terror attack in a way that is vastly different from our children. Kids today are brought up in a world where information and images are presented to them at an alarmingly fast rate.  Children often are aware of and exposed to images of atrocities long before their parents have scarcely heard they have occurred. So here we find ourselves yet again trying to rationalize the unspeakable massacre of hundreds last Friday evening in Paris and Thursday in Beirut.  Parents are faced with a job that no one should have to take on: how to explain terrorism to their child.

Terrorism is an act of violence against a group or groups of people.  Its purpose is to send a message of fear that no one is safe.  Yet, this is not true nor the message you need to give to your child.  So, a parent’s first task is to find out what their children know and what questions they may have about what happened in Paris and Beirut. When terrorism occurs, the first question children usually ask is whether they are in danger.  Parents need to reassure their child that they are in fact safe. They can explain that this was a senseless act, which sometimes does occur, but our government and police are working together to help keep everyone safe.

Amidst the chaos that ensues following terrorism, it’s important to maintain your child’s routine.  While we want them to be safe, we do not want them to be scared.  It’s okay to be cautious, but not okay to live in fear. As parents you need to be truthful about these events, but mindful of your child’s age. You should explain events in a way that is developmentally sensitive.  Younger children don’t need explicit details.  

Parents can help their child by remaining calm and modelling good coping.  It’s important to allow your child to express their feelings and opinions regarding what happened in Paris and Beirut without targeting cultural groups. Terrorists do not represent the ideals of a culture; they are politically motivated by a group that wants to force people to think the way they do. It’s important to remind children that violence is not an acceptable way to promote an idea.  And finally, turn off the television and other screens, so your child is not overexposed to disturbing, scary images.  Play some board games, card games, or kick a ball around the back yard and use this as a time to chat and connect or reconnect with your child.