Talking to Your Kids About Terrorism


After the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, I was interviewed by a local news station regarding the psychological effects that the reporting of such terrorist activities has on kids. In the short time allotted on live TV, I didn't say all that I wanted. A month since the bombing, terrorist acts continue. For the many parents and young people who still have questions, I want to get more in depth on a topic that unfortunately remains highly relevant.

How might young people react to the Ariana Grande concert bombing?

Concerts are very special events for young people, a place where they can let their guard down and really have fun in a relatively safe environment. An act of terrorism such as this may destroy this sense of wellbeing and safety at concerts and other public events. Terrorism is a form of psychological trauma.

What is psychological trauma?

It an overwhelming event that exceeds one's ability to cope. The world becomes random, uncertain, and unsafe. Such perceptions may lead to depression and anxiety, especially after repeated or long-term exposure to trauma. Children who have experienced another major stressor, such as a move to a new school or the loss of a family member, are more at risk, as are those who tend to be anxious or sensitive.

What signs of psychological trauma should parents look for in their children?

Signs of trauma in children of all ages are stomach and digestive distress, frequent sighing, sleeplessness, nightmares, nail biting, increased crying and irritability, and acting out. Social withdrawal and reduction in activities are also indicators.

What should parents do to help their children and themselves deal with the threat of terrorism?

Standard advice is that we should avoid watching the news and should focus on the fact that the probability of being in a terrorist attack is quite low. I want to say something different.

Routine and structure are important for all children, especially children who are very young. Spend more quality time reading, cuddling, and playing with them. Tell them where you are going and when you will be back. If you are going to be late, make sure you or the caregiver lets them know. Answer questions about terrorism with just the basics and emphasize to your child that she is safe.

Reconnect with older children, especially teens, in the wake of a terrorist act. Most adolescents speak more to their friends and less to their parents. Talk to them in the car when driving them to school and their many activities. For independent, older teens, get one-on-one time with them by taking them out for coffee or dinner. Just being there provides them with a valuable sense of security.

Although you may feel fear and anger about terrorism, instead express calmness, understanding, and kindness. Displays of high anxiety and aggression serve to increase the experience of trauma. Venting to your children and telling them to toughen up are rarely good ideas, as is telling them to ignore what is going on. Affection, laughter, and play almost always are good ways to connect.

On a practical level, because terrorism can happen anywhere, have a family emergency plan. Hopefully, and in all likelihood, you will never have to use it. But having a plan may help to provide a sense of safety when attending a big event or while traveling.

Empower your children and yourself to take power away from terrorists. Maybe do this through activism, prayer, volunteering, writing letters to honor the deceased and survivors, or simply by enjoying your family time more. Remember that in times of terror, people rally and support one another.

For help in dealing with a psychological trauma related to the stress and anxiety of the threat of terrorism, contact me at 858-472-8959 or visit my website. CA Licensed Psychologist 20112

Disclaimer: In no manner does this column serve to diagnose or treat readers with any psychological disorders nor imply a client-provider relationship between Dr. Kao and any reader. No such relationship exists until a client-provider agreement has been signed by client and provider.