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Addressing Tough Topics and Questions: Talking to Children About Traumatic Events

— NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Children ask a lot of tough questions. Questions about acts of terrorism, war and natural disasters are some of the hardest to answer. Particularly when the news provides immediate and graphic details, parents wonder if they should protect their children from the grim reality, explore the topic or share their personal beliefs. Professionals and teachers also wonder how much information to provide or how to help children if they are confused, troubled or asking tough questions.The following section addresses some concerns and questions parents and school professionals have about talking to children about terrorism, war and natural disasters. Contrary to parents’ fears, talking about violent acts or threatening events will not increase a child’s fear. It is very important to engage in an open discussion about children’s feelings, fears and worries related to war and terrorism. Avoiding discussion of scary feelings may be more damaging than talking about them. However, as with other topics, consider the age and developmental level of the child when entering into a discussion. Even children as young as four or five know about violent acts, but not all children may know how to talk about their feelings and concerns. Additionally, it is important to consider the child’s personality style, such as whether the child is fearful or anxious by nature, when talking about stressful life events.

Tips for talking to your children about terrorist attacks, war or natural disasters

Be aware of time and place Although it is important to respond to questions when they arise, parents and school professionals are encouraged to have a discussion with children without external distractions. The child should be given time and attention to discuss his/her perceptions, understanding, fears, worries and concerns. For example, if the conversation arises in the  supermarket, the parent is encouraged to tell his/her child that he/she is glad that the topic came up, and that they will go home and discuss it over ice cream. Similarly, if a child brings up the topic in a classroom setting which is not conducive to the discussion, a school professional is encouraged to discuss the matter in private with the child after class.

Take the first step

It is often necessary for the adults in the child’s life to initiate the dialogue themselves. A good starting point is to ask what the child has heard or seen. Parents or professionals can follow up by asking what the child thinks and feels about what he/she has heard or seen.

Look for opportunities to start a discussion

Adults should look for opportunities for discussion as they arise; for example, when watching the news together or when reading the newspaper.They can also look for other occasions when related topics are discussed, such as when people in a television show are arguing or a movie about war is on television.

Focus on the children’s feelings and thoughts

Parents and school professionals should provide children with an opportunity to openly talk about their perceptions, thoughts and feelings about terrorism and war without judgment or suggestion. It is important to explore and understand how the child sees the situation and what is important, confusing and troublesome to the child. Parents and adults should refrain from lecturing or teaching about the topics.

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