The extensive media coverage of terrorist attacks, violence, conflict, and war in the international community means that many children these days are aware of world events as they unfold. Parents are faced with the challenge of explaining traumatic violent events to children. These are difficult but extremely important conversations that give parents and teachers a chance to reassure children that they are safe and secure. These conversations also provide an opportunity to model skills in how to cope with distressing events and manage difficult feelings, and to help children make sense of complex events and develop their understanding of the world. 

Key points

  • Conversations with children about violent conflict, war and terrorism can be difficult but important.
  • Very young children can be shielded from traumatic events by not letting them see or hear media reports, or overhear adult conversations about the events.
  • Parents and carers of school aged children can open the conversation to check how the child is feeling, clarify facts, and set the emotional tone.
  • Listen to understand how children are feeling and thinking.
  • Look out for changes in children’s usual behaviour that suggest they are unsettled or distressed.
  • Reassure children and let them know that they are safe and are being looked after, and that nothing bad will happen to them personally.
  • Limit the amount of time children spend watching media coverage of tragedy and terror, or watch with them so you can provide your adult presence and perspective.
  • Provide truthful but simple and thoughtful explanations that will help them to develop a realistic understanding of the event.
  • Avoid stereotyping, narrow analyses of the problem, disaster or crisis, and blaming of whole groups for the actions of a few.
  • Leave children with a sense of security but also hope, and help them to see that their world is basically a safe place, people are usually good, and that life is worth living.
  • Look for the helpers and the heroes that help to make the world a better place.
  • Help children find something positive to do in response to distressing world events, so they feel they can make a positive difference in the world.
  • Pay attention to your own reactions and model good coping skills for dealing with distressing and confusing events. 

What age should children be before we have these conversations?

Hearing about terrorism and war can be very disturbing and distressing for children. Parents often wonder what age they should start to talk about these things with children.

For pre-school children, it is best to try to protect them completely from hearing about frightening or traumatic world events. This means not letting young children watch or hear media coverage of such events, as well as being aware of how you talk in the presence of children. Shield young children from in-depth adult discussion about world events, especially if they cannot join in at their own age or stage of development. Children can distort what they hear or see, especially when the information is received through indirect communication (for example, overheard adult conversations about worrying things).

Primary school-aged children are more exposed than pre-schoolers to hearing about events from peers, in the school yard, or through the media. It is often helpful for a parent or carer to start the conversation so that you can clarify facts, correct misperceptions, and set the emotional tone for the conversation. Just letting the child know that the door is open and that their questions are welcome is really valuable. 

Older children are likely to be very aware of the media coverage of events, and may understand the political issues better.  They need the chance for more in-depth discussions with parents and teachers to help them make sense of the events as well as process the feelings that arise.

Signs that children are feeling distressed

Children are not always able to express complex feelings in the same direct way that adults do, and therefore might not show the same reactions to stress as adults. It is therefore very important to look out for changes in children’s behaviour that suggest they are unsettled or distressed, such as:

  • Changes in their play, drawing, dreams or spontaneous conversations
  • Regressive behaviour - children behaving younger than they normally do
  • Nightmares
  • Anxiety about sleeping alone
  • Trouble getting to sleep
  • Irritability or anger
  • Tantrums, increased defiance
  • Increased aggression, angry outbursts
  • Fussy eating
  • Increased somatic complaints (e.g., sore tummy, headaches)
  • Withdrawing
  • Wanting to stay close to a parent, becoming more clingy
  • Decreased concentration or attention span
  • Feelings of anxiety, fears, and worries about safety of self and others
  • Questions about death and dying

What adults can do to help

The following activities and suggestions will vary depending on the age of the child.

Listen to understand how children are feeling and thinking

Children often cannot easily understand time and place. They may experience events as concrete, local and deeply personal and emotional, and wonder if harm will happen to them. They can easily think that everyone and everything, everywhere, is coming apart, particularly if the way adults are behaving gives them that impression. Children also tend to personalise situations. For example, they may worry about friends or relatives who live in a city or state associated with incidents or events.

  • Encourage (but don’t force) children to talk about their thoughts and feelings about the events.
  • Let them know that it is normal to think and feel as they do.
  • Provide children with opportunities to express their feelings
  • Sometimes children can better express their feelings through play than through words, so make time to play with them.
  • Let children be children. They may not want to think or talk a lot about these events. It is okay if they would rather just play! 

Monitor media exposure

  • Children can become distressed and fearful after watching repeated images of frightening events on the television, as well as other forms of media, and can come to believe that the world is a scary place. Many children retain longer-term recurrent disturbing memories from viewing violence. It is important to limit the amount of time children spend watching media coverage of tragedy and terror.
  • If children are viewing media stories of distressing events, it is best to watch with them. They need your adult presence and perspective. Being able to talk about the material with a caring and reassuring adult can reduce these reactions.

Answer children’s questions

  • Expect that children might ask the same questions over and over as they attempt to make sense of events.
  • Remain patient, and provide truthful but simple and thoughtful explanations that will help them to develop a realistic understanding of the event.
  • Correct any misperceptions they might have about the events and likely risks.
  • Children need our best answers. Avoid stereotyping, narrow analyses of the problem, disaster or crisis, and blaming of whole groups for the actions of a few.
  • Help children to separate angry thoughts and feelings about specific people who behave in cruel ways from the larger cultural or religious group to which those people may belong.
  • Avoid black and white answers.
  • Help to contextualise the events – for example, explain that terrorists are a tiny minority who use violence and fear to impose their ideas. The vast majority of people in the world defend their own ideas at the same time as respecting other people’s ideas.

Reassure children

  • Children need comfort, reassurance and support, and to know that they are safe and are being looked after, and that nothing bad will happen to them personally.
  • Let children know that there are people all over the place working hard to make sure that people stay safe, and that these people are very good at their job.
  • Do calming activities with children who are distressed.
  • Reassure them that you are watching out for them.
  • Try to spend more time with your children at times of heightened anxiety, and provide them with plenty of affection through cuddles and hugs.
  • Let them be more dependent on you for a while.
  • Maintain good routines – predictable family activity is very reassuring for children

Leave children with a sense of security but also hope

  • Keep your focus on the life skills and values you want to communicate to your children.
  • Help children to see that their world is basically a safe place, people are usually good, and that life is worth living.
  • Help children to see that people are amazing, and that humans have a strong spirit for survival.
  • Look for the helpers and the heroes that help to make the world a better place and are inspiring role models
  • Help children find something positive to do in response to distressing world events, so they feel they can make a positive difference in the world.

Pay attention to your own reactions

Remember that children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They are very interested in how you respond to events. They learn from listening to your conversations with other adults. Children may respond to the anxieties felt and expressed by the people around them. They often see and hear far more than adults are aware of, and they will take their cues for how to respond from you.

  • Talk privately with trusted adults if you are needing to air your own feelings or explore your own reactions to the events.
  • Share your own feelings, but show that you are in control of them.
  • Learn and teach communication skills and non-violent ways of resolving conflict.
  • Live well, defend your own ideas, and respect those of others. 
  • Build your understanding of other religions and cultures - visit a mosque or church or a synagogue, join in with Muslim community events.
  • Join groups that have a peace or social justice mission in order to reap the benefits of mutual support and collective action. Donate time and money to such causes.
  • Challenge hateful attitudes and actions and correct unhelpful misconceptions wherever possible (and when it is safe to do so).
  • Practice forgiveness and acts of kindness.