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

Parents would like to do everything possible to protect our kids. But we live in a world where 9/11 and ISIS are part of everyday life. So how do we explain terrorist acts and other violence to our children?

Let’s work our way through the age groups, from pacifiers and pull-ups to acne and angst.  Whether your children are nursing or shaving, your primary goal is to help them feel safe. Here's how:

How to Talk About Terrorism with Young Kids

Tip #1: Avoid letting young children see disturbing videos. As is developmentally appropriate, the line between fact and fantasy is fuzzy for young kids.  In order to prevent needless fears and nightmares, keep the news channel turned off when they’re around.  Likewise, put off high-emotion conversations or inflammatory radio about recent events until they’re out of earshot.  You may think they’re not even paying attention, but little kids are like sponges: they absorb everything.  Get your news about ISIS at work or after the little ones have gone to bed.  

Tip #2: If you do walk in to find your preschooler staring at disturbing footage on TV, stay calm.  Simply say “Hey, let’s give the TV a rest,” turn it off, and then gently redirect: “Tell me about this drawing you were working so hard on.”  Don’t lunge for the remote, cover their eyes, or snap “You shouldn’t be watching that.”  If you make it dramatic, it will make more of an impression and create anxiety or guilt..

Tip #3: If your young child re-enacts a tragedy, help him play it out until everyone is safe.  For example, if your young son builds a LEGO city and then crushes it, saying it was “bombed,” say, “Time to call in the fix-it crew!”  Join him in rebuilding it and then ask how it can be made safe.  Perhaps he’ll build a wall, make a couch-cushion shield, or have a toy dinosaur guard it.  Especially for younger children, accuracy matters less than feeling safe.  Most importantly, drive home the sense of safety non-verbally by offering hugs and cuddles for no reason at all.

How to Talk About Terrorism with School Age Kids, Tweens, and Teens

Tip #4: With older kids, start the conversation by asking what they’ve heard.  Especially for teens on social media, you can be sure they’ll hear about recent terrorist events.  Use a TV or online story as a prompt, and then ask, “What are people at school saying about ISIS?”  Or, if your kids bring it up, clarify what they know by asking more: “What have you heard about that?”  

If they say “nothing,” you don’t have to force them to talk.  You’re aiming for presence, not pressure.  So long as they know you’re a safe, non-judgmental person to whom to talk, conversation will come when they’re ready.

See also: How to Raise an Introverted Child


If they do tell you what they’ve heard, “Noah said bad guys cut off a guy’s head,” listen for three things: fears, misperceptions, and questions.  Here’s how to deal with each:

Tip #5: When you hear fears, normalize their feelings.  If they’re scared, say “Lots of kids and even adults feel scared.  That was scary.”  Don’t say, “Don’t worry about it.” or “There’s nothing to be scared of.”  Even if that’s technically true, that’s not how they feel.  They’ll feel dismissed and learn you’re not someone who’s safe to talk to.

Tip #6: Look for the helpers.  Take the advice of the inimitable Mr. Rogers and, in times of tragedy, “Look for the helpers.”   Soothe fears by reassuring kids that military, police, or other community helpers they already know are there to protect people no matter what.  Likewise, if there is news coverage about someone acting as a hero or helping the survivors, tell them the story.  Leave your child with faith in humanity.

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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