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Family Talk: How to talk to children about terrorism

While talking to your child about scary events, try to also help him or her feel safe. [Photo by Ryan McVay, Thinkstock]
While talking to your child about scary events, try to also help him or her feel safe. [Photo by Ryan McVay, Thinkstock]

I read an article recently about how to talk with your children about terrorist attacks. It made me sad to be reminded that we have to talk to our children about such things. 

But, we definitely need to talk. 

Like most topics, from sex to drugs to politics, parents should not adopt the ostrich approach. Ignoring such topics prevents your children from learning your perspective. They will get information on these subjects from less reliable sources. Parents need to think through what they want to say ahead of time and then take the initiative.

My own children were young when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing happened, and I remember my wife and I talked with them about what happened and even took them down to see the bomb-scarred building before it was finally torn down. They went with us to the Red Cross to drop off donations. We were sad with them, but also tried to be hopeful with them, calling attention to the great generosity of so many people who responded with assistance to our city.

Terrorist incidents were not all that common when my kids were young. That’s not the case any longer. So, how are parents supposed to talk with their children about terrorist attacks? Condemn a religion? Ignore the issue? Limit news watching? None of these approaches helps your child cope. But here are some good suggestions posted after the Paris terrorist attacks last year by reporter Jenny Anderson at 

Validate their feelings. The worst thing to say to a child who says, “I am scared,” is to respond, “There is no reason to be scared.” Acknowledge their fear or sadness while looking for ways to make them feel safe.

Ask open-ended questions. More information is better than no information, after a certain age. But too much information can be overwhelming. Ask kids, “What have you heard about what happened in Paris (or London)?” and then let them talk. “Leave out details that may create increased fear or compromise your child’s sense of safety,” writes Ritamaria Laird, an expert in pediatric mental health in Chicago. “Remember, your main goal is to convey a sense of security for your child. Listen to your child and provide information based on your child’s questions.”

Teach them the broad lesson they need to learn. Kids love to divide the world into good guys and bad guys. After an attack, it is important to define the bad guys for what they are: a tiny minority. 

Give thought ahead of time to the main message you want to convey and try to stay on message. Make your questions and comments age appropriate. You can have much more in-depth discussions with teens than with younger children. Listen to, and don’t criticize, your child’s questions or viewpoints about terrorist attacks, even if they are under-informed. Keep the lines of communication open. 

Above all, remind them how much you love them. Every day. That may be the No. 1 way to communicate security to your child in an uncertain world.

Jim Priest

Jim Priest is the CEO of Sunbeam Family Services, a 108-year-old nonprofit that provides a range of social services to support Oklahoma's most vulnerable people, including early childhood education, counseling, foster care and senior services. Jim... Read more ›