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How to Talk to Your Children after an Act of Terrorism

After an act of terrorism, one of the most important steps you can take is to help your children express their feelings and feel safe. The following information can help you talk about the situation and answer questions you and your children may have.

How Parents Can Help Children Cope After an Act of Terrorism:

  • Give children reassurance and extra emotional support. Terrorist acts remind us that we are never completely safe – but now is the best time to reassure children that they can feel safe in their school, in their home, and in their community. Reassure children of the steps being taken to keep them safe. Explain that people from all over the world offer help in times of need. If they are old enough you can mention that the government, police, firefighters, and hospitals are also doing everything possible.
  • Be honest with children about what happened. Children are better able to deal with a situation when they understand it. They need information just like adults do.
    • Begin by asking your children what they already know about the situation. Most likely, they have already heard about it on TV, at school, or from friends. However, a lot of their information may be inaccurate. As they explain what they know, look for misunderstandings or frightening rumors. Tell the truth and do not try to mislead them "for their own good."
    • The amount of details that children will find useful will depend upon their age, personal experiences, and knowledge of the situation. The older the children, the more details they may need. Provide the basic information in simple and direct terms and then ask for questions. Take your cues from your child in determining how much information to provide. See How Children of Different Ages Respond to Disasters.

Common Questions from Children after an Act of Terrorism:

Could we have done anything to prevent this?

  • After a tragic event, we all wonder what we and others could have done to prevent this from happening – even when it is obvious that nothing could have prevented the crisis. Some children may still feel helpless and wish they could have changed what happened. Let your children know that this is a normal reaction and that we all wish that there was something we could have done to prevent this or any tragedy. Suggest that you and your child concentrate on what can be done now to help victims and to ensure safety in our communities.

Whose fault is it?

  • While it is natural to engage in thoughts of blame, this doesn't ease the immediate feelings of grief or provide any solutions for the future. It is understandable to be angry at the individuals who commit acts of terrorism. However, sometimes people are also angry at the people that are the easiest to find and blame – such as people who look like they might belong to the group that was responsible. Children should be told that it is normal to feel angry at the people who did this, and that terrorists do not represent everyone from a particular race or ethnic group. We, as Americans, take pride in the fact that our country is made up of many different races and ethnic backgrounds. This is a time to join together and continue to be inclusive, accepting, and supportive to all who seek peace.

Can we help?

  • Once children start to feel safe and understand what is going on, many will want to help. For example, older children and teens may post messages of support and sympathy on social media. Remind children of all ages that there are things they can do to help themselves and others feel safe. They can start by taking care of themselves – telling you when they are upset or worried, being honest, and open. They can also offer help to other members of their community – their friends and classmates, their teachers, and other adults who are in need. Over time, they can think about how they, along with other members of their community, might be able to do something helpful for the victims and survivors.

Common Questions from Parents after an Act of Terrorism:

Some of the questions my child asks are so uncomfortable to respond to. I don't want to make things worse, so should I say nothing instead?

  • Often what children need most is to have someone they trust listen to their questions, accept their feelings, and be there for them. Don't worry about knowing the perfect thing to say – there is often no one answer that will make everything okay. Listen to their concerns and thoughts, answer their questions with simple, direct and honest responses, and provide reassurance and support. While we would all want to keep our children from ever having to hear about these events, reality does not allow this. Being silent on the issue won't protect them from what happened, and could prevent them from understanding and coping with it. Remember that answers and reassurance should be at the level of the child's understanding.

What if this upsets them?

  • During these discussions, children may show that they are upset – they may cry, get anxious or cranky, or show you in some other way that they are upset. Remember, it is the events that are upsetting them, not the discussion. Talking about the events gives them the opportunity to show you how they feel. This is the first step in coping with their feelings and adjusting to their new understanding of the world. Pause the conversation periodically so that you can provide support and comfort to your child and ask if he or she wishes to continue the discussion at another time. Let them know it is okay to show you when they are upset. Otherwise, they may try to hide their feelings and be left to deal with them alone.

What if they don't ask any questions – should I bring it up? What if they don't seem to want to talk about it?

  • When a crisis of this nature occurs, it is a good idea to bring the topic up with your children, no matter how young they are. Some children may tell you that they don't want to or need to discuss it. It is generally not a good idea to force them to talk with you, but do keep the door open for them to come back and discuss it later. Be available when your children are ready to talk, but let  them choose the time. Often children find it easier to talk about what other children are saying or feeling instead of talking about themselves.

How can I tell if my children need more than I can provide? Where can I go for help?

  • When there is a tragedy, it is normal to be upset. However, should your children continue to be very upset for several days are unable to recover from the fears or start having trouble in school, at home or with friends, then it is a good idea to speak with someone outside the family for advice. You may wish to speak with your child's teacher or school counseling services, pediatrician, mental health counselor or member of the clergy for advice.

Additional Information & Resources:

Additional Information on

Last Updated
Adapted from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (Copyright © 2015)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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