Making Sense Out of the Senseless — Discussing Terrorism with Your Kids

It’s a sad reflection of our troubled times that parents have to address terrorist attacks with their children; yet successful parenting requires dealing with the realities of modern life, both good and bad. Parents can control the media exposure of children cared for at home who are not yet in school, but it’s unrealistic to expect that even a young school-age child won’t learn of a major attack on American soil or even internationally. Using age-appropriate words can defuse anxieties in kids and help them process the knowledge that not all people in the world have good intentions.

Ages 5 to 10

Address the matter of terrorism when the children feel safe, perhaps while snuggling with mom or dad on the couch, but generally not right before bedtime to avoid nightmares. Don’t delve deep into ideologies, as the kids won’t understand, and it will only confuse them. Keep it simple. For those on the lower range of the age group, use basic words, “A person did bad things and hurt a lot of people and everybody is very sad.” When the event happened half a world away or on the other side of the country, explain that to your child, emphasizing the distance as “a long plane ride away” and stressing that everyone here is safe.

By the time kids are approaching the double-digits, they can absorb a bit more and might have lots of questions. Some may be very detailed, wanting to know how bombs kill people or what were the specifics of the attack (knife, gun, poison, etc.). While it may seem gory to parents, kids need to understand in order to process the event. Answer as best as you can or simply admit that you don’t know.

Ages 11 to 14

Kids of this age have to constantly readjust their worldviews as they encounter new and different perspectives and information. Some may obsess over the attacks and want to watch attack footage over and over. Parents can manage this when appropriate by diverting their attention from TVs and electronic devices to family activities and discussions. Let your children feel free to discuss their feelings about the attacks. They are not too big to still need reassurance that they and their family members are safe and not at risk.

Tweens and early teens have learned that not everyone in the world shares their belief systems. Parents can prevent them from becoming prejudiced against certain ethnic or religious groups by pointing out that terrorists are extremists and not true representatives of a certain culture or faith.

If your children are worried about falling victim to a terrorist attack themselves, break out some statistics that show how truly rare that possibility is, and that our government and the police are doing many things behind the scenes to keep us safe.

Ages 15 to 18

Parents may not be able to limit older teens’ media exposure much, so encourage them to focus their youthful energies on helping victims by collecting donations, attending vigils or sending cards and letters of support to the survivors and the families of the deceased.
When many of the victims were around the ages of your teens, it can be particularly horrifying and stressful, as teenagers are quick to imagine themselves in the victims’ place. They may find solace through writing or making artwork to express these feelings or simply to honor the loss of lives. Continue to encourage them to share their feelings freely and point out that there are steps they can take to reduce the likelihood of falling victim to an attack, including:

• Maintaining an awareness of their surroundings
• Locating the nearest exits in buildings
• Noting any unusual people or circumstances, such as abandoned bags
• Alerting police to the above events

The randomness of terrorism is what makes it so frightening to children and adults. Help children of all ages resist surrendering their curiosity about their world out of fears for their own safety. Encourage them to empower themselves with knowledge, to cast a discerning eye on media reports, and to be proactive about their own safety.

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