How can parents and teachers talk to children about terror attacks?
By Professor Atle Dyregrov and Magne Raundalen, psychologists, Center for Crisis Psychology, Bergen, Norway
Following terror attacks horrific images and stories repeatedly reach children through the front pages of newspapers, through TV, radio and the internet. They enter young minds and can leave lasting impressions. As adults, we are shocked about what takes place, and when familiar tourist sites are targeted, our feeling of safety is threatened. However, throughout our lives we have accumulated knowledge and experience that help us understand and process such events. With limited experience children are more prone to misunderstandings and fear.
Our observations and experience from both research and clinical practice tells us that we must talk with children about world events. The main purpose of talking to children about terror attacks after major media exposure is to reduce fear and worries in their daily lives. They need and deserve calming information from caring adults, and should not be left alone with their thoughts and fear or have to tackle rumours and misconception in their peer environment.
The guidelines presented below inform adults on how to interact with children and the advice is relevant for those who work with children as well as parents. Besides describing ways to address acts of terror, it also provides some guidance on talking with children about terrorism in general.
Be open and honest with children
When events feature massively in the news, we strongly advise adults to talk with children, to increase their feelings of safety and calm. Conversations can promote understanding and decrease children’s anxiety.
Conversations should always be undertaken in a calm, reassuring way. Parents should prepare or even train themselves to behave in a calm manner. It is hard for children to differentiate natural upset from fear. Thus, we should state that we are upset because of the gruesome acts, but we are not afraid. We are not afraid because such events happen very seldom.
We know that many children follow the news and update themselves on what is happening when terror strikes, and yet they may struggle to understand what has happened. This is why we have to meet children with open and direct conversations. From kindergartens and from parents of children as young as four to five years we know that they can worry about what they have seen on TV. Children may talk among themselves about this and continue to think about it afterwards. Left to themselves and their fantasies they may easily have unnecessary fear and anxiety. In addition, Peers and older siblings sometimes deliberately tell “horror” stories that can cause irrational fear in younger children as well as in the peer group.
It is important to highlight that many children, even though they are both frightened and upset, do not necessarily feelthat violent news interferes with their daily lives. If your child is just as before, it is important not to pressure them to a daily conversation about issues they are not concerned about.
Use your antennas
Have your "antennas" on, because children who may seem very unconcerned, nevertheless can be worried but do not want to bother their parents. There is no shortage of reports on anxious children who keep their fear away from mom and dad. When we have met children and asked them why they have not talked with parents, they have a standard answer that we believe to be true: "They do not know what to say."
Age appropriate conversations
Conversations with children must be appropriate to their age and understanding. Adults often underestimate what children can understand, because children ask questions that reflect their lack of knowledge. Without facts and good explanations, their understanding will be limited. Left to themselves or to conversations with peers there is a risk of misunderstandings, rumors, fears and fantasies. Fact-based information and comfort and support is warranted if they feel strongly about a tragic event. We do well to remember that with many refugees throughout Europe, many children know someone who has lived with terror in their lives. If this is so they may well empathise with victims, and adult support may be needed.
A caution about adult rhetoric
Through media slogans like “We are not afraid”, “Back to normal to-morrow”, “Take back the streets", “They will never scare us, we have no fear” are heard with great frequency. This adult rhetoric on how we want to cope and deal with the terror threat and our own fear is re-iterated by our political leaders in “Churchill-like” speeches even by saying that “we shall never surrender.” As psychologists, we of course see this shared attitude as a healthy and strong way to enable us to continue normal life at home, at work and in our free time.
Although we favor and understand this strategy, we also think that it is a cover for a fear underneath. A fear we want to suppress. Do we succeed? Do children believe us or can our pretended lack of fear cause more fear among some of them, at certain age-levels? How do we then explain to a sharp 7-year old that the media are so intensely focused on something we should not fear - a non-dangerous event?
The dilemma is that we through this attitude may become less available and sensitive to children’s utterings of threat and fear. How can we solve this dilemma? A simple answer is to allow oneself to feel and admit one’s fear. With kids who obviously challenge us, we can admit that we experience discomfort and fear in certain situations, big gatherings for example, and then discuss this openly with kids that are old enough. We then can explain that RISK is something different! One may feel fear, but the risk of experiencing a terror attack is so small that if you start continued on a journey from city to city over many years, there would be almost no risk of being exposed to a terror event. You can explain that it is best not to think about it, but admit that sometimes you have fear pangs and that you need to reduce your fear by reminding yourself of the low risk.
Children’s needs at various ages
What the smallest children (3 to 6 years) primarily need to hear is that they and we are safe. The youngest children are both protected and more vulnerable because of their limited language comprehension. They are partly protected because they think that mom and dad arrange everything, and everything is safe. The dangerous world has yet to enter their own world. Although they may be far away from where terror happened, their understanding of distance is limited, and they may fear that it will happen where they are. They may struggle to understand what is happening, and they observe and take their cues about own safety and what to do from their mom and dad. Children are easily smitten by fear in adults. If parents keep calm, reassure them of their safety, and provide information that helps them to understand parents’ reactions, they cope well.
Remember that small children are vulnerable to separation, especially when facing stressful situations. They have not developed the adult understanding of time and even short separations can feel like an eternity. Being together and providing physical contact is calming. Clear explanations of upcoming parental absence train them to regulate emotions.
School age children (7-12 years) understand more and they become increasingly more active users of different media. This means that their exposure to what goes on in the world increases. Although they access news and information themselves, they do not have adequate experience or the concepts to understand and process this information.
They can have distinct concepts about what a country is, about distances and where cities are located on the globe, and they are developing understanding of politics and the impact of terror acts. They can also understand that people can plan to kill others, they can be concerned for their own security, and have political opinions regarding cause and effect.
In this age they may have many questions relating to good and evil, they start thinking more about long-term consequences of what people experience (i.e. death), and they can be preoccupied by justice. They are much in need of adult explanations of world events in order to integrate the world around them, and their emotion regulation is immature and still under development. They still need comforting by adults, even though they are trying to be more independent.
Adolescents (13-18 years) access different news media, discuss a lot between themselves and emotions can rapidly spread in a group. With less adult input, they can form strong, but sometimes very superficial opinions about world events. Although their understanding of events is more advanced than in children, their ability to think ahead about ramifications of events can still be limited. As they can be very political and argumentative and with emotions sometimes running high, it may not be easy to inform them or discuss terror events with them.
Because they can be secretive, seek out their room to be alone, spend hours on their own searching or playing internet games, or only seek out friends, adults sometimes have to try really hard to establish contact to understand the ideas that might be affecting their everyday behaviour. They might feel fear of terror events, but don't communicate this to adults, as this might threaten their feeling of independence.
Though we will not address age issues in everything we write in the following, explanations must be framed according to the child’s developmental understanding.
The use of two perspectives in explaining to children
When we explain dramatic news to children, especially following terror events, there are two perspectives that we will emphasize.
The first and most important is what we can call the “therapeutic” perspective. When we explain, we should curb unnecessary fear and anxiety regarding what can happen to the child/youngster themselves. As a rule, it is not enough to say that we adults are not afraid, although it is important to emphasize or convey this. Part of the therapeutic perspective is to accept that your child may seek more adult attention from adults, for example at bedtime, or will need more information from you to feel safe.
The other perspective, we call "educational". News about terrorism upsets adults and children, but although it is terrible news, it can lead to important learning. It provides parents and teachers with an opportunity to educate their child about the world and other people, as well as teaching them how to regulate emotions and bodily reactions. This is learning for life. We need to help them establish pegs that increase their understanding of what has happened, and strategies for regulation of emotions that they can use throughout life.
Providing the children with pegs to understand
It is hard to fathom that anyone can do something so terrible as to execute a terrorist attack. As adults we have 'pegs' we can put our anxieties on that prevent us from thinking a terrorist attack is imminent in our own near future. It is this adult confidence we want children to share. By explaining that such terrorist acts are very rare, we do not make the terrorist act less terrible, but it means that children will not be exempted from constantly thinking that it can happen here and now, anytime. Good information dampens children's anxiety. However, explaining “rarity” or probability is difficult with children under10. Throughout childhood, they gradually understand what rare and frequent means. They know for example that Christmas comes only once a year, as does their birthday. In explaining frequency and chance by referring to “rare” events they know, they can get an understanding of why we adults are not afraid that it can happen anytime.
Although there have been several terror attacks in our part of the world over the last few years, we should explain that very few people die from terrorism compared to illness and accidents. If they are over10 years of age, we can also tell them that over a few months many more people in Europe die from illness, accidents and suicide than the number being killed in terror attacks. This is not to make them more afraid of other kinds of deaths, but to explain that whenever there is a terror attack or a disaster, the media depict it in such graphic detail that we as humans tend to think it is more frequent than it is. We tend to fear what is featured as spectacular in the news, more than what most humans die from.
Assume responsibility – start a conversation
When terrorist acts happen, or other terrible news dominates the media, we would recommend that you actively observe your children and how preoccupied they are by this. It is better that you start a conversation with them, rather than assuming that they probably haven't registered what has happened. Responsible adults do not leave children to their own thoughts and fantasies, but ensure that they can meet any fears they have and answer their questions. We also think we should convey to children that we adults have noticed that the police are working hard to protect us and learn from each event in order to protect us even better. This means that we can be safe.
Concepts that can help children understand
We have struggled to find concepts that can be used to explain how terrorists are thinking. This is not easy, as every explanation can reflect a political view. However, we do think it is right to explain that persons who plan to kill innocent people by exploding a bomb, by shooting them, bring down a plane, or drive a truck or car into gatherings of people, have developed wrong thoughts in their mind. Though we are skeptical about labeling what we do not understand as 'disease', we can explain that we think that these wrong thoughts are bordering on a disease in their mind - what we sometimes call 'thought diseases' to simplify it to children.
Two other concepts that can be used in explanations are “brakes” and “cleaning machine”. The fact that someone first plans and then kills others, can be illustrated by explaining that all people can have strange and sometimes dangerous thoughts, but usually we have brakes that hinder us from acting upon such thoughts. You can explain to a child:
“You know that you can get into trouble if you hit someone in class, so your brakes stops you from acting on them. The brain has a kind of cleaning machine that constantly watches out for wrong thoughts and this will activate the brakes when necessary. However, in terrorists these brakes are not applied, and there is nothing to stop the wrong thoughts. The brakes are not used and the cleaning machine is broken."
You can also explain that in groups, where terrorists have little contact with other people apart from those with similar ideas, they can foster bad ideas and thoughts together and agree to act on those wrong thoughts. Being in a group can release the brakes and then people do awful things, with no brakes applied.
Another way to formulate this is:
"All people have a brake in their mind that they can step on for stopping dangerous thoughts, and they have a cleaning machine that quickly removes the worst thoughts. Sometimes we all do and say stupid things. That is not a disease. It is completely normal. Then we apologize. The brakes and cleaning machine are our good friends. Unfortunately, in a few people both the brakes and the cleaning machine function poorly, maybe because the person experienced a lot of terrible things in his childhood. However, it is also possible that his brain has become poisoned and full of crazy and angry thoughts because of the people the person goes around with. The main thing is that it's very rare that anyone gets such thoughts and starts to kill lots of other people."
What can you say about terror, terrorism, and terrorists?
The words "terror", "terrorism", and "terrorists" are used differently from country to country. We know that the use of these concepts easily can turn into “dynamite” and therefore we suggest that you think about how you can explain them to your child or adolescent.
Below we provide some ways of formulating information for school-age children (younger children need simpler explanations). These are examples on what to include in your explanation, especially with children from 10 years of age and upwards.
Terror and terrorist acts. “In some countries, those in control (governments) call everyone who doesn't agree with them "terrorists" if they use guns to change things. However, if the government themselves use weapons to suppress or force those who live there to do things or limit their freedom we aren't sure that the word "terrorist" should be used about those who fight against oppression. If they kill innocent people who do not have weapons, we think it is right to call it "terrorism".
Many agree that we should not use those words about anyone fighting in a war, but should use the word "terrorism" when someone tries to kill other people just to scare everyone. Those who carry out such acts of terrorism, we call "terrorists", but we could also call them “frighteners”. They want us to be frightened and alarmed. They often blame other countries or groups for all that has gone wrong in their country. So, they plan to blow up a bomb or shoot people to create fear in those who live where they carry out their attack. They use bombs where there are crowds of people to make everyone afraid. Or they shoot at innocent people or find other ways to frighten ordinary people. This is why police and extra security personnel are placed at airports, on trains, at bus stations and places where many people gather together. The police try to scare the frighteners.
Different cultures. The groups who carry out acts of terrorism around the world belong to different religions and different cultures. In the media, we hear most about the terrorist groups which are closest to us and which affect us most. Often we hear about terrorist acts linked to countries that are Muslim. Most people in these countries believe in Islam, a religion in which they call God Allah. It does not mean that those who believe in Islam are terrorists. Most people who live in these countries are like us, they do not want war or terrorism. They are ordinary people who want to live in peace. But, there are some groups who believe in Islam that have guns and bombs. They are criminals because they kill or threaten to kill innocent people.
In many of the countries with terrorist groups who call themselves Islamists, people’s lives have been very difficult, and have got even worse in recent years. Many people live in poverty, and many countries have had wars and unrest. We believe that much of the turmoil going on in these countries is because of bad leaders who have become wealthy themselves, while the rest of the people live in poverty and distress and have no work. The terrorists blame this on other nations, the US and Europe. It may be true that our countries have a bad history of suppressing them and taking their resources. But we have not elected their leaders. Some countries that have had terrorist groups are Libya, Syria, Iraq and Algeria.
In the Middle East there is also much conflict and war with bombing and missiles between Palestine and Israel. Palestinians are Arabs and Muslims, while the Israelis are Jews and believe in a religion called Judaism. Israel has much more military power than the Palestinians, who fight back using what the Israelis call terrorism. They say they must defend themselves because the Palestinians send rockets into their cities. We’re telling you this to help you understand that some of the turmoil in the world, especially in the Arab world and what we call the Middle East, is because many people think this war is the cause of much of the unrest and violent acts in the rest of this region and in other countries far away.
What can we do against terrorism? In Europe and the US, we must rely on the police. They have systems for monitoring cellphones and keeping tabs on what happens on the internet between those suspected of planning terrorism, in order to stop terrorists before they do something. If they learn that there is a danger of or threat of terrorism, they will take precaution in order to prevent something from happening. They will monitor and protect airports, trains, buses, and important buildings where the government is located. Where many gather, such as in meetings in the center of a town, they will also be more alert. Nevertheless, we can never say that terrorism cannot happen. We cannot control everything. It is also useless to think much about terrorism, when we cannot know when it will happen. Therefore, we think that the best for all of us is to live life as normal. To go to school, play football, and have fun. If we let ourselves be intimidated by the terrorists, they “win”. That is because the frighteners aim to make all of us so scared that we cannot live, as we want. Most of the time we are safe and we have nothing to fear. If you are afraid, it is good to think that the terrorists are very few, and they cannot be many places at once. We are many and they cannot hurt us.
When terror happens, we adults become horrified at hearing what has happened. That does not mean that we are very afraid. We are alarmed because there are such frighteners, but we very well know that they cannot be many places at once and they are not a great threat.
Why do some people or groups use terrorism?
There are several reasons why people or groups use terrorism, but all of them want to achieve something. Most often, they want to scare people, but they also want to provoke a reaction, and to make a statement.
Those performing terrorist acts will not accept or believe that they can get others to think like them in a peaceful way. Some of the Muslims who commit terrorist acts do not accept that women and men should be able to dress as they please; they require women to cover themselves and men to grow beards. Others want to draw attention to their situation, so that others become aware of how they feel. Their situation may be terrible, but it’s not acceptable for terrorism to affect innocent people. There are also “lone terrorists” who act on their own, who may feel that they have been wronged all their life, may have had a childhood where they were bullied and want revenge, or they may have psychiatric problems where their mind (brakes and cleaning machine) is not functioning properly.
These “lone” killers have often taken ideas from the internet and made them their own. The ideas have poisoned their brains. In some countries (like the US) where there is easy access to weapons, they can buy guns and shoot lots of people. Luckily, in most countries, access to guns is restricted and such killings happen very seldom. It can be hard for police to know that someone is planning such killings and we believe it would be best if what they do was not being given so much attention in the media, because that can spread poisonous thoughts to other people’s minds where the cleaning machine isn’t working well.
Children may be upset by terror events and the news coverage that follows. Parents and other adults need to be responsive to what children think and how they react to what they take in. We recommend that adults observe their children and engage in conversations and explanations that help them both to understand and to process such events. Responsible adults do not leave children to their own thoughts and fantasies, but ensure that the conversation with their children can meet any fears they have, provide explanations that help them to integrate and broaden their perspective, and answer their questions. This will calm their fears.
A short version with 10 tips to adults can be found by clicking here
Atle Dyregrov has written about "Family recovery from terror, grief and trauma" in the aftermath of the terror in the United States on September 11, 2001.