How to talk to your children about terrorist attacks

 Photo: Getty Images

Talking to children about terrorism – a subject that most adults shake their head at in sorrow, disbelief and anger – is a difficult conversation to navigate well.

However, it is a conversation that needs to be had – with consideration of age and experience. Even children who are sheltered from the news by their families are going to be exposed to chatter in the schoolyard – so help children into healthy patterns of understanding from a place of love and not hysteria.

With footage captured in the moment, running commentary in the media, talk in the school yard and the classroom, parents are encouraged to get ahead of the scare-mongering by having conversations with their children that present that facts in a supported way.

These are 6 top tips for helping children to conceptualise, understand and explore terrorist attacks and the fear associated with them.

1. Focus on feeling safe

While there is lots of attention right now on the terrible events in Manchester, children need to feel that they are safe in their world. Anxiety comes from feeling that terrorism is threat to them right now. Safe and secure – when parents tell their children that for as long as the world has been turning, lots of good things have happened and some bad things have happened. But right now, in their homes and schools they are safe.

2. Express feelings

This is a difficult reality for adults and an even more difficult reality for children. Parents are encouraged to let their children express their feelings without being dismissed or minimised. Feeling worried, scared and angry are common emotions – and helping a child to express these feelings and then reminding them that they are safe is the way forward. Some children may become fixated on the emotions and need lots of support and reflective listening to work through the feelings.

3. Give perspective 


While this is a terrible event that has claimed lives and created fear, remind children that it is a rare event. It's not an everyday happening and every day there are lots of wonderful things that happen to and around people. Help children identify those and see the world as a place of hope – and not of fear and uncertainty.

4. Focus on hope

In this dark time, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the problem. For children, focusing attention on champions, heroes and good events changes their view of the world from being catastrophic and unpredictable – to being a place where sometimes bad things happen – but lots of good things happen too.

5. Limit viewing

Too much exposure to high emotion footage is difficult for children to take in and make sense of. Try and minimise children's viewing of live recorded footage of the chaos and high emotions.

6. Distraction

Help children to find healthy places to focus their attention. It is not unusual for children to become hyper-vigilant, or hyper-focused on events like high profile, high-emotion terror attacks. A bit of distraction goes a long way to breaking that focus, attention and vigilance.

Get children out doing activities they enjoy – and this will add to their reassurance that their world is safe.

Parents are also encouraged to monitor their own responses to the terror attacks in front of and around their children. Children take their lead from their parents and significant caregivers – so being factual, talking about feelings and focusing on the hope and the good is recommended.

Signs that a child is feeling distressed

This is a difficult area to conceptualise, to have rational thoughts and feelings about for adults. We use our knowledge of the world, of people and relationships to make sense of our own feelings. Children don't have the same access to years of life experience, the ability to think through information rationally, or well developed patterns of self-regulation.

So, their reaction and response to highly emotional and distressing situations might not be in words. It's important to watch out for other signs of distress including:

  • Changes in mood
  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Irritability, aggression or anger
  • Changes in eating and sleeping
  • Nightmares
  • Worrying in general
  • Separation anxiety that's not usual
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Intense focus on death and dying
  • Worrying about the safety of themselves and others

Parents are encouraged to seek professional help if their child's distress continues or worsens.

Claire Orange is BEST Programs 4 Kids Children's Wellbeing Expert.