How to talk to children about terrorism

Fear and confusion are a natural response to terrorism and Jen Hogan hears what we as parents can do to help our children process feelings and cope in the aftermath

Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande performing at the One Love Manchester concert, last Sunday night.

AS parents, our natural instinct is often to shelter our children from the harsh realities of the world in which they live. Yet again this weekend, horrific news stories and images have emerged from our nearest neighbours, as London found itself, once again, the target of another terrorist attack.

We live in media saturated times and don’t always have control over the things that our children hear and see, or how and when they hear and see them. The world is a changing and sometimes scary place and the sense of helplessness that we as adults feel, can be magnified for a child.

It’s impossible not to have been affected by recent events in Manchester. The world watched and wept as details of the victims emerged. The geographical proximity made it feel all the more real and relatable and the fact that so many children lost their lives resonated with families everywhere.

We were no different. As my children woke to the news that there had been a terrorist attack at a popstar’s concert, a sense of confusion and “what ifs” set in. My daughter referred to the fact that her friends had been to see Ariana Grande recently. This was an “achievable” for a teenager, a common enough past-time. My older sons questioned how and why?

And the questions kept coming. As the days passed and more details emerged, there was an inability to understand why someone would do this. A sadness followed as certain children focused on those left behind, while another was confused as to how this could happen “if the children’s mammies and daddies were there”. I tried to comfort them but in truth, I couldn’t get my head around it either.

We went on our first ever foreign family holiday recently. Security was a new experience for my non flyers and one of my sons was stopped for random swab testing. He was unsettled by it and it heightened his fears about a terror attack on the plane. I moved quickly to reassure him that checks like these, helped to keep us safe and that there was nothing to worry about, but it was a reminder to me that children are aware of a different danger — a danger that we didn’t imagine when we were younger.

Joanna Fortune, clinical psychotherapist at Solamh says that children are often particularly affected by tragedies which involve other children because it’s relatable. “It can be very hard for children to think of other children dying as they often associate death with much older people. This brings it back to them and they can make it about themselves which intensifies the feeling around the issue”.

She believes that it’s impossible for any of us, children included, to avoid hearing details of major news stories and “that children are better off hearing news of any kind from their parents”.

If the news is heard elsewhere, Joanna advocates speaking with your children about it at home as soon as possible.

“Schools also like to discuss current and world affairs with children as part of the civic participation curriculum. It is good for children to have an awareness of the world around them. It also helps them to understand that they are part of a system far bigger than themselves, and how the world around them works.”

When it comes to trying to achieve the balance between keeping our children informed, but avoiding overly stressing them, Joanna explains that it is important to speak with them in a manner that is “age and developmentally appropriate”.

She recommends avoiding “gory imagery and graphic details as best you can” and says not to flood them with details. “Give them a little at a time so that they can work through it in bite-sized pieces of information. Try to stick with answering their questions rather than volunteering information they haven’t asked you for yet.

“Provide lots of reassurance that these events are very rare and that your child is safe. Highlight all the people who work hard to keep everyone safe. But let them voice their fears and acknowledge them without dismissing them.”

She advises watching for signs “that they are not coping with a news event — sleep disturbance, behavioural shift, psychosomatic symptoms such as tummy aches, significant emotional problems developing — and respond quickly by talking to them more about it, saying that you’ve noticed they might still be worried about what happened”.

For children who appear particularly affected, Joanna says in addition to reassurance and open, appropriate levels of discussion, “making a card for the victims and families, signing a condolence book (age dependent) or doing something ceremonious like releasing a balloon for victims or planting a flower” can help.

“We can calm their fears by ensuring that they can come to us as parents with their fears and that we can contain that for them. But remember that scary events are scary and fear is a valid emotional response to some of what is happening, so do not dismiss their fear, but help them to contain and process it with you.”


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