Talking to Kids About Terrorism or Acts of War (page 2)

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

How can I tell what a child is thinking or feeling about the terrorist act or war?

It is not always possible to judge if or when children are scared or worried about news they hear. Children may be reluctant to talk about their fears or may not be aware of how they are being affected by the news. Parents can look for clues as to how their child is reacting. War play is not necessarily an indication of a problem. It is normal for children to play games related to war and this may increase in response to current events as they actively work with the information, imitate, act out, or problem solve different scenarios. Regressive behaviors; when children engage in behaviors expected of a younger age child, overly aggressive or withdrawn behaviors, nightmares , or an obsession about violence may indicate extreme reactions needing closer attention.

Addressing a child's particular, personal fears is also necessary. Parents should not make assumptions about what worries their child. Parents are often surprised by a child's concerns, e.g. worrying about being shot while at Sunday school, or refusing to go on a boat ride after seeing a ship get attacked.

How should I talk to children about a terrorist act or war?

Contrary to parents' fears, talking about violent acts will not increase a child's fear. Having children keep scared feelings to themselves is more damaging than open discussion. As with other topics, consider the age and level of understanding of the child when entering into a discussion. Even children as young as 4 or 5 know about violent acts but all children may not know how to talk about their concerns. It is often necessary for parents to initiate the dialogue themselves. Asking children what they have heard or think is a good way to start. Parents should refrain from lecturing or teaching about the issues until there has been some exploration about what is most important, confusing, or troublesome to the child. Adults should look for opportunities as they arise, for example when watching the news together. You can also look for occasions to bring up the topic of when relevant related topics arise. For example, when people in a television show are arguing. Discussion about larger issues such as tolerance, difference , and non-violent problem solving can also be stimulated by news. Learning about a foreign culture or region also dispels myths and more accurately points out similarities and differences.

Far off violent events can stimulate a discussion of non-violent problem solving for problems closer to home. For instance helping children negotiate how to share toys or take turns in the baseball lineup demonstrates productive strategies for managing differences. Older children may understand the issues when related to a community arguing over a proposed shopping mall. Effective ways of working out these more personal situations can assist in explaining and examining the remote violent situations.

Adults should also respect a child's wish not to talk about particular issues until ready. Attending to nonverbal reactions, such as facial expression or posture, play behavior, verbal tone, or content of a child's expression offer important clues to a child's reactions and unspoken need to talk.

Answering questions and addressing fears does not necessarily happen all at once in one sit down session or one history lesson plan. New issues may arise or become apparent over time and thus discussion about war should be done on an ongoing and as needed basis.

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