Talking to Kids About Terrorism or Acts of War (page 3)

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

Should I let a child watch television or read about terrorism or war?

Parents and professionals can assume the majority of children have access to information or hear about current events that are making the news. However, understanding the child's age and personality style determines how much direct access adults should provide. Watching, reading, or examining the news together is the best way to gauge a child's reaction and to help a child or teen deal with the information. In discussing what is viewed or heard when together, parents and professionals become informed about how the children processed the material and how they feel about it. It also provides a ready forum for discussing the topic of war and violence. Correcting misinformation and discussing personal feelings is then more profitable.

Should I tell my child my opinion?

Terrorism and war provide a perfect opportunity to discuss the issues of prejudice, stereotyping and aggression and nonviolent ways to handle situations. Unfortunately it is easy to look for and assign blame, in part to make a situation understandable and feel it was preventable. Adults must monitor their own communications, being careful to avoid making generalizations about groups of individuals. This dehumanizes the situation. Open, honest discussion is recommended. But adults must be mindful of stating their opinions as fact or absolutes. Discussions should allow for disagreement and airing of different points of view. Feeling their opinion is wrong or misunderstood can cause children to disengage from dialogue or make them feel they are bad or stupid. In discussing how war or terrorism often stems from interpersonal conflict, misunderstanding, or differences in religion or culture, it is important to model tolerance. Accepting and understanding others' opinions is a necessary step in nonviolent conflict resolution.

Distinguishing between patriotism and opinion can be helpful. One can disagree with a cause or action but still believe in the right to have arms or feel it is important to defend a country. The manner in which issues are resolved is separate from one's allegiance or personal beliefs.

How can I reassure a child?

Don't dismiss a child's fears. Children can feel embarrassed or criticized when their fears are minimized. Exploring the issues and positive ways of coping help children master their fear and anxiety. Parents and professionals can reassure children with facts about how people are protected (for example, by police men in the community or the president who meets with world leaders) and individual safety measures that can be taken (for example, reinforcing the importance of talking to an adult when bullied ). Avoiding "what if" fears by offering reliable, honest information is best. Maintaining routines and structure is also reassuring to children and helps normalize an event and restore a sense of safety.

What should I do if we know someone in the area of conflict or terrorism?

Having a personal relationship with someone in the area of conflict or target of terrorism can cause additional particularly troubling feelings. When a friend or relative is involved in a traumatic newsworthy event others often search for information. It is advisable to find the most reliable information source and filter out both the quantity and quality of the potentially inaccurate news provided to the general public. Having accurate information informs one of the best way to communicate with the person and the possibility of sending aid. Taking things one step at a time, being realistic about what is known rather than preparing for the worst can be difficult but helpful. Imagining the worst does not prevent it from happening and can turn an unpredictable situation into an unnecessarily bleak one. Obtaining support from others in a similar situation by sharing information or feelings helps some people feel less alone and validates their distressing feelings. Adults can share their fears but must manage their own distraught reactions so as not to scare their children or students. Engaging in some normal activities of life, especially for eating, sleeping, school and work provides stability and predictability at a time when events make life seem confusing.

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About the Author

Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D. , is a clinical psychologist specializing in bereavement issues.

About the NYU Child Study Center

The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at

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