Southern Star: Talking to children about terrorism

Linda Hamilton's Southern Star column on how to talk about terrorism to children.
'Bad news' stories can induce anxiety in children.

Terrorist atrocities and other bad news stories can distress children, especially those of a sensitive nature. My recent Southern Star column on the subject is reproduced below.


In the wake of the recent terrorist attack in Manchester, where a child as young as 8 was among the victims, parents are asking: how should we talk to our kids about terrorism and other “bad news” stories? (continued below...)

Many children are troubled by what they see on the news. The Manchester atrocity was especially harrowing, as it specifically targeted pre-teen and teenage concert-goers. The increased frequency of ISIS attacks in Europe indicates the topic will not vanish from our TV screens any time soon.




I know from my own clinic, however, that sensitive children can become anxious over much more mundane news stories, whether they pertain to burglaries and break-ins, gangland feuds, or even Fair City’s long-running kidnapping storyline. It’s unsurprising, then, that the horrendous misdeeds committed by extremists have the potential to shock.


While you can’t wrap kids up in cotton wool, it’s a good idea to not have the news on when very young children – say, kids aged 7 or younger – are in the room. In particular, coverage of conflicts in Syria and other war zones frequently contains upsetting images that can frighten young children. If they do see a story, it’s important to be understanding and reassuring, informing them they are perfectly safe and that those sad events took place somewhere far away.


For slightly older children, topics like the Manchester attack need to be handled in an age-appropriate manner. Reading up on the ideology and tactics espoused by ISIS would give many adults nightmares, not to mind children, so it’s best to be sparing if the details you share. That said, it’s important to answer children’s questions and report the basic facts, rather than dismissing their fears or changing the topic of conversation. Kids are quick at picking up on adult discomfort, which they may interpret as confirmation that they are right to be worried. It’s better to engage in a reassuring manner, thereby allowing the issue to be put to bed.


More work is needed for very sensitive children who are prone to anxiety, however. Some children may become terribly upset after hearing of a tragic accident or crime, worrying something similarly awful might happen to them or their family.


Reassurance is often insufficient in such cases. It’s important to deal with such anxieties in an uber-rational manner, teaching children the critical thinking skills that help them to see the danger is not nearly as grave as their Worry Brain is leading them to believe. Unfortunately, adults don’t always excel in this area, overestimating certain risks and underestimating other risks. Surveys show people generally think crime is increasing, even though the opposite is true. Occasional terrorist attacks in countries like Turkey have resulted in a dramatic drop in tourist numbers, even though the odds of being attacked remain minute. People are much more afraid of flying then driving, even though the latter causes many more fatalities. After 9/11, more than a million Americans changed their travel plans, deciding to drive rather than fly – decisions that ultimately resulted in more than 2,000 extra road deaths.




Today, many parents wonder if they should let their children go to concerts. My response? An unequivocal yes. More people die from bathtub accidents than terrorism; should we stop taking baths? Should we stop driving because accidents occasionally occur?


The message to anxious kids must be that upsetting stories are in the news because they are very rare. Every day, millions of children go to school, study, play games, return home, eat dinner, watch TV, and go to bed. That’s normal life, but it’s not news.


Children are reassured when you really tease out the reality with them. A Kilkenny-born child will agree it's possible the Wicklow hurlers would beat them by 20 points but they won’t worry about it because they know the odds are tiny. Such examples help kids see it’s inadvisable to worry about very unlikely events, to carry on as normal rather than be restricted by our fears.



Adults – not just children – should adapt the same scientific mindset. Don’t give in to anxiety. Don’t restrict your life or the lives of your children because of some tiny, tiny risk.


CBT for children and teenagers