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Talking to Kids About Terrorism

Posted By Julie Stevens, Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Lately world news has been replete with stories of violence perpetrated upon civilians by terrorists. The kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram and the attack by the Taliban on a school in Peshawar were especially appalling given the numbers of children abducted and/or murdered. And 2015 was barely a week old when the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish deli in Paris were attacked, resulting in more bloodshed, intense media coverage and extensive commentary on a host of complex topics, including free speech, religious intolerance, and challenges facing displaced immigrants.

The Impact on Children

When such shocking events rivet global attention, our children inevitably experience some level of exposure. Even as parents struggle to comprehend these atrocities, they must be “on call” to help their children process strong emotional responses or answer their questions. How parents choose to address or ignore widely publicized acts of terrorism will depend on a variety of factors:

  • the ages and developmental levels of their children
  • their family’s ethnic/cultural/religious background
  • a parent’s professional context (service in the military/frequent travel abroad)
  • the demographic characteristics of the community where a family lives

First, frame the events accurately

Thankfully, most parents will never deal with terrorism beyond confronting disturbing headlines. By definition terrorism involves the random acts of a very few highly aberrant individuals who inflict great harm on a statistically small number of victims while negatively impacting the psyches of millions. Keeping this in mind will help adults moderate their own reaction and interpret the news in a way that will reassure kids. Parents must counter the insidious effect on our collective consciousness when terrorism’s impact is amplified by the echo chamber of the 24/7 news cycle. (Did we need another reason to limit our kids’ exposure to media?) Despite the atrocities dominating the news, parents can find balance in statistics showing that the world of the 21st century is safer than at any prior time in history. (See Harvard cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined [Viking, 2014])

Addressing the issue confidently

Parents are often at a loss about how to talk about these violent events with their children. The National Association of School Psychologists recommend the following six tips when talking to kids about terrorism:

  1. Model calm and control, while normalizing feeling upset and fearful as appropriate in the circumstances.
  2. Reassure that trustworthy adults (parents, teachers, other authorities) are working to ensure immediate safety.
  3. Tell the truth and stick to the facts. Be guided by kids’ questions and observed emotions, avoiding speculation about who was responsible or dwelling on the scale and scope of the tragedy.
  4. Keep explanations at a developmentally appropriate level.
  5. Listen carefully to kids, and encourage (but don’t force) them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings.
  6. Maintain a “normal” routine, at home and at school.

A real-life example

A recent NPR piece featured the reactions of one Parisian family that was forced to address the potential for more violence when their 9 year-old daughter’s Jewish elementary school was suddenly placed under heavy police guard. This matter-of-fact, measured response to a very up-close-and-personal tragedy compares favorably the recommendations above. The father was quoted as saying,

We chose to tell our daughter everything that did happen as it was happening and she seemed to be handling it extremely well…She asked questions about the bad people. ‘What is happening? Where?’ I told her. The supermarket that was attacked, we actually frequent it…so she knew exactly where the place was.

He went on to explain how he was continuing to maintain as much as possible of his family’s routine, despite the undeniably upsetting situation, and offered praise for the protection provided by the authorities. His comments suggested that despite the potential to be traumatized, his daughter seemed to be taking events in stride.

Finding good in the darkness

The violent loss of innocent life that lies at the heart of terrorism is always sad and abhorrent. But as deeply disturbing as these events are – to children and adults alike – they provide a chance to reinforce family beliefs and values. Teachable moments emerge when parents start by taking the time to understand their child’s “take” on what they’ve seen or heard, and then respond with sensitivity to their child’s developmental level.

  • When 8 year-old Jessie wants to know why someone could be killed simply for drawing a cartoon, her mother might start by asking, “I wonder why you think this happened and what bothers you most about what you’ve heard. It certainly is a very hard thing to understand, but it’s important to be able to talk about it.” Elementary school kids, not to mention most adults, aren’t prepared to interpret the Quran or intelligently discuss blasphemy laws. But Jessie’s mom could remind her that no matter how angry she might feel when teased, it’s never okay to retaliate by hitting and hurting.
  • Similarly, 8th grader Luis might announce, “Anybody who believes that a picture could make it okay to kill people is crazy. That religion is stupid.” First, Luis’ dad should agree that killing in the name of religion is never defensible. But he could continue by asking Luis what else he thinks Muslims believe as a prelude to helping Luis to conduct some quick internet research on the basic tenets of Islam. And his dad could remind Luis that while one Jewish friend keeps a Kosher kitchen, another eats pork, i.e., individuals who identify with the same religion can behave and believe very differently.
  • When high school senior Tracy complains that her school’s newspaper advisor has nixed a plan to print a caricature of the star player for the rival basketball team, and Tracy concludes that students’ rights to free speech are violated, the conversation at the dinner table might end up exploring the role of satire in a democratic society and lines between free speech and hate speech.

From fighting fear to forging skills

The evolving Charlie Hebdo narrative highlights that ours is a world increasingly both borderless and dangerously divided. Global citizenship is demanding. Our kids will confront profound religious, political, cultural and economic differences in their communities and workplaces. They must learn to successfully communicate and coexist with “the other.” Parents should urge the schools their children attend to:

  1. prioritize multi-cultural competency
  2. offer courses in comparative religions and ethics
  3. foster inclusivity and celebrate diversity
  4. provide authentic opportunities for student leadership
  5. promote critical thinking and perspective-taking skills.

Tags:  [Grade: Lower]  [Grade: Middle]  [Grade: Upper]  [Subject: Parenting]  [Type: Article]  [User Group: Parents]  [User Group: Teachers]  child  family mission statement  moral competence  Parenting 

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