How do you talk to children about the awful news of terror attacks, stabbings, bombings, shootings or using planes or trucks to kill innocent people? Especially if children are among the casualties.

It’s normal for children to feel anxious when they hear about shootings, bombings, and other attacks where there seems to be a senseless loss of life. It’s frightening for many people. It’s hard to protect children from hearing or seeing news about current affairs. So, it can be useful to plan how you can talk to your child about terror attacks, in case they become upset by overhearing the news or hear conversations amongst adults about terrorism.

  1. Turn the news off. If there are children around, when you hear news about a terror attack, turn the radio and TV off. Don’t let a child under 5 hear the news. Some images and videos that are shown are too graphic for a child to comprehend and can traumatise them.
  2. Find out what your child understands. If your child talks about the attack or has overheard the news, find out what they’ve seen or heard.  Ask what they think about it.
  3. Give age-appropriate explanations to questions. Explain in language your child will understand explain: “Yes, there was a man with a gun/bomb/truck, and some people were killed.” Don’t flesh out the details but correct your child if they have misunderstood something. you don’t have to give them more details than they ask for. Talk about bad actions rather than bad people.
  4. Talk about peace. You may like to add something like: “Sometimes people get so angry that they want to hurt other people. Even people who haven’t done anything wrong, to show how angry they feel. That’s why it’s important to say how you’re feeling in words and find ways to sort out arguments.” With an older child, you may discuss how peace in the world would be improved if people who were angry could talk about making changes to people who can help, rather than hurting innocent people.
  5. Cuddle and comfort your child if they’re upset. Rather than saying: “you don’t need to worry, it’s better to say: “It’s OK to feel scared sometimes. It can be scary to hear. Come here and have a hug. I’m here now. I know that sometimes you’re worried about what you hear on the news. It’s not easy to understand why people hurt other people. And we feel really sad when something happens and other people are hurt. That’s called compassion. We feel sad when they’re sad.”
  6. Find ways to help your child calm down. It could be cuddling a soft toy or cushion, snuggling up to someone they love or finding a book or game to distract themselves. Other things that may help are relaxation CDs, relaxation techniques, deep breathing, meditation or yoga for children.
  7. Reassure your child they are safe.  Children are egocentric and may believe that bad thing that happen, may happen to them too. So reassure them by saying something like: “It’s very rare for something like this to happen. We live in a safe area, and I’m here to keep you safe.”
  8. Find a way to help. It is human nature to want to do something constructive when there has been a tragedy. That’s why you see flowers being laid, and people queuing to give blood. You could encourage your child to:
    Light a candle or send positive thoughts to the people who were hurt.
    Say a prayer for the people who have been affected by the tragedy.
    Sometimes sending money may be appropriate.
    Write a message to the people who were affected.
    Sing songs about peace in the world, like Imagine by John Lennon, Kumbaya, or Down by the riverside.
  9. Look for the helpers. “Whenever there is a catastrophe, always look for the helpers – because if you look for the helpers, then you’ll know there’s hope.” (Fred Rogers) Concentrate your child’s attention on all the people who came to help the people injured in the terror attack. Rescue teams, medics, heroic actions and normal people trying to help the injured and distressed.
  10. Help understanding through stories. We all like to make sense of the world. That’s why news programmes offer continuous coverage of tragic events. Children make sense of things through stories. Stories are powerful. If a child is particularly traumatised or frightened, it’s helpful to get them to write the story of what they saw or heard, how it affected them or made them feel. And how the story ended (perhaps with a hug from you and reassurance that they’re safe.) Little children may prefer to draw a picture and then tell you all about their picture.
  11. Move on. Notice bravery, confidence and resilience. What you want is a for your child to feel compassion, accept what happened and eventually move on. It’s good to notice and comment when your child is being self-confident, courageous or resilient. Make a point in the coming days and weeks to notice and tell your child every time you see them being brave or confident. Or dealing with a difficult situation well. And praising that behaviour.

The most important thing is to allow your child to express their concerns, talk to your child using language they will understand and to be there to give your child cuddles and comfort them when they feel worried or upset. Talk about the importance of working together to promote peace.

Do you need help? Sometimes it can help to work with a parenting coach so you can help your child with anxieties. Please give me a ring if you’d like some extra help in allowing your child to come to terms with a tragedy or difficult situation. Call on 01403 839683 to book a free call to see if working with me would be right for you.

child behavioural expert
The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

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