How to Talk to Kids About Terrorism and Violence

From 9/11 to the Boston Marathon bombings to ISIS, violence and terrorism are part of growing up in our world today.  How do we explain such a world to our kids? Savvy Psychologist offers 13 tips to talk to your kids about terrorism and violence.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #39

Tip #7: Highlight distance.  Another way to soothe fears is to emphasize the distance between your home and terrorist events.  TV brings it right into your living room, and many kids don’t know whether Syria is the next town over or another planet.  Use a globe or world map to show how far away the violence is from your city.

Tip #8: Possibility versus probability.  For older kids who can handle abstract semantics, you can discuss the difference between possibility and probability.  Yes, violence and terrorism is possible in the world, but it’s probably not going to happen, especially not in your town.  Part of the reason such violent acts make the news in the first place is because they’re so rare.  

Tip #9: Remind them that most people are good.  Soothe fears with reminders that even though terrorists use violence, most people don’t approve of violence as a way to solve problems.  Remind them that, of all the people in the world, not many are terrorists and that, in fact, most people are caring and kind and usually find peaceful ways to solve their disagreements.  

How to Fix Misinformation and Misperception

Tip #10: Gently correct misperceptions.  If you find kids are conflating terrorists with a larger group, like all Muslims or all people of Middle Eastern descent, use it as a teachable moment: Take the conversation one step further to discuss prejudice or xenophobia. “Terrorists are people who use violence and make people feel scared. Almost all people who are Muslim are peaceful.”

Tip #11: Gently correct inappropriate humor.  For kids who misperceive the gravity of the situation, like making light of the recent beheadings, first remember that developmentally, younger kids may not be able to truly grasp the concept of death, much less the violent death of innocent people.  That said, reinforce that violence is not something to laugh about and that it is always sad for someone to lose his life.

How to Answer Childrens' Questions About Terrorism

Tip #12: Listen for fears in their questions.  Fears may take the form of questions, like “Could that happen here?”  Instead of just saying “No,” give them a more substantial, reasoned answer to make them feel secure.  Say, “Thousands of people are working really hard to keep us safe.”  Collaboratively think up a list of who these people are - the President, peacekeepers, diplomats, people in the armed forces, special agents, etc. Again, the younger the child, the less accuracy matters.  What’s important is that kids leave the conversation with a sense of safety.  If your kindergartener wants to add Ninja Turtles to the list of protectors, no problem.

Tip #13: Help them take action.  Tweens and teens developing a moral view of the world may be particularly disturbed by the injustice.  Take their question of “How could anyone do that?” and turn it into action to better the world.  Ask if they want to donate to a relief organization, collect school supplies for Iraqi children, or send a care package to the troops.  Kids 17 and older can even give blood.  Help them feel empowered by taking action or taking a stand.

Until next time, I'm the Savvy Psychologist. Send your questions or comments to psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com. Connect with me on Facebook and Google+.


The National Child Traumatic Stress Network 

Scared girl and mother comforting daughter images courtesy of Shutterstock.

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only.  This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider.  Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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