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Talking to Children About Terrorism

These recommendations are for children who were not directly affected by tragedy. Children who are present at the scene or who lose loved ones require a more individualized approach. Children who have persistent symptoms of anxiety and depression should be seen by a mental health professional.

Advice for Teachers 

Take time to talk about a terrorist attack.

Just as we turn to our leaders in time of crisis, so our students look to their teachers for information and understanding. Even if students are slow to participate at first, take the lead. What you say matters.

Review what has happened.

Cover the basic facts of a terrorist attacks, so as to dispel rumors, speculations, and misunderstandings.

Help students express their feelings about the tragedy.

It is important to put strong feelings into words. Even though it seems obvious, state clearly that these are terrible tragedies and that we all feel terribly sorry for the victims and their loved ones.

Express anger in an appropriate manner.

It is understandable that students feel angry, but the target of that anger should be the terrorists, not all Muslims, Arabs, or Middle Easterners. Discourage stereotypes and prejudice which grow so easily from hate and fear. If an American commits an act of terrorism, it does not represent all Americans.

Talk about constructive responses.

Point out that our nation has coped with many other tragedies. Affirm that many people are working at the scene of the attacks, while others are treating injured victims and consoling families of victims. Our government is working to find the terrorists and bring them to justice. There are new airline regulations and other procedures to keep us safe.

Return to your routine.

Terrorism is successful only if it terrorizes us and disrupts our lives.

Additional Thoughts for Teachers

Contributed by Robert C. Pianta 

These are some comments that professionals who work with children, particularly elementary age children and younger, may wish to consider as they are faced with decisions about exposing children to frightening or threatening information, and how to deal with the concerns of children who have been exposed to loss.

Be thoughtful and planful and not opportunistic.

Remember that although you may see instructional value in a particular piece of information or TV coverage, most children will not see it and will react emotionally. The coverage of the recent attacks on the WTC are a good example of this. Children (and many adults) viewed those events as personal threats; the younger the child the more personal they were likely to see the attacks. Even older elementary students may have wondered, "Will this happen to me?” It is important to see the "event" or the "information" from the eyes of children, who often feel vulnerable. When frightening events are being covered, it is imperative that the adults in charge think through all the different possible reactions that children may have and be ready to deal with them. Don’t let yourself be in a position of being surprised by a youngster’s questions or reactions - preview information, talk with parents, discuss the situation with another professional. It is always good to get someone else's perspective on these issues. Talk through all the possible reactions children may have and decide how to handle them in the situation in which you'll be interacting with children - Will you be the only adult? How many children will be there? Are there children who will already be sensitized to the information? Will someone be available to help if a child has a strong reaction? If you can then add up all these contingencies and come up with "yes" then MAYBE you should go forward.

Remember that you are a source of safety and security for children in school.

We ask that children trust their teachers, have confidence in them, take risks for them, etc. Children have an emotional investment in the adults they encounter in school and part of that investment is trusting in them as safe and secure. Undermining that sense of safety and security comes at great cost to the child and the role that the teacher plays with regard to helping that child in school - you run the risk of becoming one more adult who can't be counted on. Over and over again we hear children speaking of the importance they place on feeling support from their teachers. For these reasons it is important to protect that sense of security, not by denying that bad things are in the world that may need to be talked about, but by doing so in limited, constrained, appropriate ways that also protect the child's sense of confidence and emotional security in the adult. In cases such as the World Trade Center coverage and the accompanying discussion in the aftermath, children were clearly stressed and sought out routine, safety, comfort, and security. They found such things in everyday activities with people with whom they were familiar. Being asked to watch coverage, write about "what they were thinking about last week" or other such things were ways that teachers and other adults to whom children were looking for comfort, actually became stressors. They became agents that asked the child to confront difficult circumstances. In that way they undermined their roles. It is not to encourage you to engage in some form of denial when an event such as this occurs. Rather, provide minimal, reality-based information on breaking news and encourage the children to talk with parents. Don’t force children to confront information if they don't wish to (or if they are young and unable to make that decision). It may be best to err on the limiting side rather than the exposure side. In any case, remember the child's perspective.

Remember that children will pick up what you are anxious about.

During such times of crisis, it is natural to be anxious and to seek comfort. Human service environments should be set up to handle these needs, so that these adults can turn around and be effective supports for the children. To the extent that such adult anxieties have not been adequately handled, it is unfortunate but true, adults may end up seeking comfort from the children or overexposing children to the threats as a means of coping. None of this is intentional and it is all understandable, but it needs to be recognized and appropriately addressed by the staff ahead of time.

Advice for Parents 

Take time to talk about terrorist attacks.

Children look to their parents for guidance and reassurance. Even if your children are reluctant to talk about it at first, take the lead. What you say matters.

Review what they understand.

As your children continue to deal with terrorist episodes, they may have misconceptions or misunderstandings about what took place, even if they have followed the news accounts. Talk about it in terms they can understand.

Identify your children’s fears.

Children may have unrealistic fears that we do not anticipate. They might fear an attack on their home or loss of their parents. References to Pearl Harbor may suggest to them that World War II will be repeated. Take time to find out what your children are thinking about and reassure them.

Limit television exposure.

Television news presents highly disturbing images and victim accounts that can be too frightening for most children, particularly those under the age of 12.

Help your children express their feelings about the tragedy.

Share your feelings with your children, but set a good example by expressing your feelings in an appropriate and mature manner. Extreme expressions of anger and grief may not be helpful to your child’s sense of security and self-control.

Express anger in an appropriate manner.

It is understandable that children feel angry, but the target of that anger should be the terrorists, not all Muslims, Arabs, or Middle Easterners. Discourage stereotypes and prejudice which grow so easily from hate and fear. If an American commits an act of terrorism, it does not represent all Americans.

Spend some family time in normal, reassuring activities.

Bake cookies. Go for a walk. Play a favorite game. Do something together as a family that helps your children feel comfortable and secure.

 

For Additional Information
National Association of School Psychologists
Purdue Extension: Terrorism and Children
American Academy of Pediatrics - Communicating with Children about Disasters

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