How to talk to children about terrorism

In modern society, the face of danger is vast and multifaceted. As a parent, one begins to walk the fine line between fearmongering and educating, with the focus consistently on your child’s safety. Looking abroad, the recent increase in terrorism has seen children being exposed to violence through our borderless access to current affairs. The onslaught of news, pictures and videos comes through phones, televisions, tablets and airwaves. However, the climate of violent crime closer to home also brings up the question – how do I talk to my child about violence?

The difficulty around talking to children about terrorism and violence lies in the fact that we as adults even find these acts difficult to comprehend. We start to feel unsafe and question our safety and the safety of our loved ones. This is the important first step in starting difficult discussions with children – monitor how you as a parent, adult and member of society feel about the traumatic incident. Children gauge the emotional reactions of their caregivers and use this as a cue as to how to respond to specific situations. In light of this, it is vital for parents to create a sense of safety for their children and to model calm behaviour, as much as it possible. On the flip side, it is important for parents to have a safe space where they are able to debrief around their own feelings, away from the eyes and ears of children.

The nature of the discussion is based on three key variables: What the child already knows; where the information they have now has been gleaned and the child’s developmental age. As a rule of thumb, children in pre-school or below should be protected from discussions around violence and terrorism.  However, specific questions from these young minds should not be ignored. These discussions should be kept simple, remembering that children often just need the answers they require, without any embellishments. These discussions should also be had timeously in order that children receive facts, are able to ask questions and parents are able to convey the emotional tone around the topic.

Some Tips from counselling psychologist Nikole Seele:

  1. Monitor the emotional tone you are setting around specific incidents
  1. Find out what your child already knows – this is especially important to prevent opening up a can of worms. Understanding where your child is at with regard to specific incidents will guide the discussion in light of what information is given, how much detail is added and where the focus of the discussion is held. The rule of thumb here is to mirror your child while giving as much information as is needed to make them feel heard, understood and safe. In mirroring, parents should keep the discussion where the child takes it. Remember, it is the child’s frame of reference that is important here.
  1. Provide a safe space for your child to discuss their fears. This requires parents and caregivers to be available to have this discussion more than once. Remember that processing of trauma takes time and new questions and concerns may arise. During difficult discussions, it is important for adults to monitor their reactions to their child’s emotions. Although it is difficult to see children upset, it is normal for them to have emotional responses to impactful situations. Having said this, it is important not to force children to talk. Instead, an open invitation should be extended indicating availability and stability whenever the child is ready.
  1. Discussions should take place on the child’s level. The key is to keep things simple. Real life examples that the child can relate to and understand can assist in helping them to understand and begin to process traumatic events. Also remember that having difficult discussions also provides key teachable moments around compassion, empathy and concern for others. Parenting expert, Denise Daniels provides the following example. Developmentally, a 4-year-old would understand that “something bad happened”. A parent’s response to this could include the following: “Yes, something bad happened. It happened, because some people were very cross with some other people. But we should always remember that it is not ok to hurt yourself or other people because you are angry”.
  1. It is important to encourage emotional expression and provide reassurance. A concerted effort should be made to find ways to aid children in emotional expression, be this through movement, art, poetry or music. Again, it is important to monitor adult responses to emotions. Emotions are not bad or wrong, but the way in which we express them and manage them can be more or less effective. Parents should assist children in being able to identify and manage emotions by modeling empathy, acceptance and unconditional positive regard. Through this we are equipping children with the vocabulary to be able to express what they are feeling and to be better able to develop coping mechanisms. Parents often feel pressure to have all the answers when in fact it is alright to admit that we don’t have the answers to everything, but be sure to point out the support system that the child does have, such as other adults and teachers.
  1. Model good coping skills as your children are watching you for cues as to how to respond. This does not mean that parents should be faking calm, as this can often result in children being more unsettled as they pick up on non-verbal cues too. If parents are having difficulty processing a traumatic incident, they should definitely be seeking help with this, away from the eyes and ears of their children. A good rule of thumb is to identify emotion (another teachable moment), but reinforce your belief in support structures and safety and model appropriate coping strategies.
  1. Empower your children. Create plans of action that they can carry out and identify people they could approach in times when they are feeling threatened. Avoid stereotyping. Always control exposure to traumatic incidents, footage and stories.

Most importantly, seek professional help for both yourself and your child should you be concerned or uncertain.

Nikole Seele

Nikole Seele

I am a Counselling Psychologist at Impact Therapy Centre in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, which is a large focus of my work; it seeks to assist people through the involvement of horses in the therapeutic process. My role is to assist, guide and gently challenge individuals on their journey to self-actualisation. I completed my masters degree in 2014, after having completed my undergraduate and honours degrees at the University of Pretoria and UNISA respectively.

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