Are We Next? Eleven ways to respond to children’s fears of terrorism

For children, hearing about almost daily terrorist attacks happening all over the world can be very frightening. In 2016 alone, there have been more than 100 terrorist events worldwide and recently, many have hit close to home. 

Are we next? Many children may wonder.

The Boston Marathon bombings brought terrorism to our city and into our homes. The near-daily reporting of terrorist attacks in other parts of the world leaves us feeling vulnerable and helpless. From Sept. 11, 2001,  to ISIS, violence and terrorism are part of what our children face in our world today.

How do we explain such a world to our kids and help them feel safe, despite terrorism? Our instinct to protect doesn’t work in our world where the news is everywhere and our children will likely hear about terrorism when it happens.

Here are 11 ways to help your children’s fears regarding terrorism.

1. Manage your reactions. Parents set the tone for their children. If parents act like terrorism is knocking on the door, children will sense that fear and become afraid.

2. Limit access and exposure to TV, social media and “suggestible” discussions. If you aren’t a parent who tends to limit web surfing and Internet exposure, consider limiting kids’ tech time to keep them feeling safe. Exposure to scary images of terrorist attacks will increase a child’s sense of danger. Children are impressionable and will have difficulty managing the images in their minds after they have seen them.

3. Listen closely to what your children say about how they feel and what they think. Address concerns while providing reassurance. The calmer, more centered you are, the easier it will be for your child to talk openly.

4. Reassure authentically. Listen, be patient, and tolerate children’s irrational thoughts and fears, without indulging them. Say things like, “I know it’s scary and it feels like it’s going to be us next …. And it’s not.” Talk about how life will continue to happen the way you plan it every day. Discuss what is possible and compare it to what is probable.

5. Empower your children to make the world a better place.  It’s true that you may not be able to help the victims of the latest terrorist attack, but you can help sick people at your local hospital or others in need. Encouraging your children to help others allows them to feel empowered that they can “do” something.

6. Reinforce the role of helpers. Discuss the presence of emergency and crisis workers to manage a terrorist attack. Explain that the people who can help victims best are doing their jobs.

7. Stay away from analysis about why terrorism occurs. The more you probe the issues in depth, especially with children under the age of 13, the more they are likely to wonder about causes and what’s next. Leave the heavy-duty discussion to those in charge and focus on keeping your child feeling calm and safe.

8. Carry on. Despite the reality that terrorism can occur during festive, crowd-filled activities, and in places where people vacation, or during travel, do not limit your planned activities, if possible, because of fears of a terrorist threat. Refer to the U.S. State Department travel guidelines for travel safety concerns.

9. Watch for changes in your children’s behavior. If your child is reacting strongly to a recent terrorist attack, look for signs of moodiness, nightmares and changes in sleep and eating habits. Watch for increased anxiety regarding immediate life issues (traveling, engaging in unfamiliar tasks or social situations or going into crowded places). Take new anxiety in relation to these seriously. Offer more support by spending more time together and by offering more reassurance. If the anxiety continues, seek consultation with your pediatrician.

10. Correct misperceptions. Don’t allow your children to blame terrorism on ethnic groups or to stereotype groups of people as a result of an attack. Use this behavior as a teachable moment. Explain that terrorists are people who harm, kill and threaten others, not an ethic group.

11. Normalize upset. When children react to terrorism, that’s normal. Terrorism is a horrific event that creates upset. It’s not normal when children obsess about attacks and limit their activities because of their fears. When a child does experience upset, sadness, confusion or fear after learning of a terrorist attack, let your child know its OK to have these feelings and that they will pass.