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Talking to Children About Terrorism and War

Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Tips and Resources for Parents and Caregivers

Washington, DC—News report about the Paris attacks and ongoing terrorist threats dominate the news and daily conversations.  Children often ask questions to the adults in their lives about such high profile events.  Most children and youth will cope well with the support of families, friends and other adults.  However, children who suffer from depression or other mental illnesses, have a history of traumatic experiences or personal loss, or have special needs may be at greater risk for developing more significant reactions.

Parents want to help their child feel safe and secure.  The District of Columbia Department of Behavioral Health offers the following tips to parents and caregivers in supporting their ability to talk to children about the images and content they are exposed to in the media.

Limit Exposure. To the largest degree, possible limit your child’s exposure to repeatedly hearing and seeing images that may disturb them.

Reassure children that they are safe. Acknowledge that even though these events did occur, these events do not represent common occurrences.  Reassure the child that there are many adults are around to help keep them safe.  It is important to maintain a sense of normalcy.  Keeping to a regular schedule can be reassuring and promote physical and mental health.  Ensure that children get plenty of sleep, regular meals, and exercise.  

Make time to talk.  Let children talk about their feelings, help put them in perspective, and help them express their views. Let their questions be your guide about how much information to provide.  Don't force children to talk about things until they're ready. Give children honest answers and information. Keep your explanations of the event developmentally appropriate, clear and straightforward.  Children will usually know if you're not being honest.

Share information with your child’s teachers and school. Parents should know about activities and discussions at school. Teachers should know about the child's specific fears or concerns.

Avoid stereotyping groups of people by race, nationality, or religion. Use the opportunity to teach tolerance and explain prejudice. Remember that children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They are very interested in how you respond to events.

Observe children’s emotional state.  Children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily and may not express their concerns verbally.  Changes in behavior, appetite and sleep patterns can indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort.  Stay close—many children want actual physical contact—and provide ways for children to express emotion either through drawing or painting a picture, music, journaling or writing. Watch for possible preoccupation with violent movies or war theme video/computer games.

Let children be children. They may not want to think or talk a lot about these events. Don’t force it but create a space for the conversation to take place.  Help children find ways to express themselves. Some children may not be able to talk about their thoughts, feelings, or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing pictures, playing with toys, or writing stories or poems directly or indirectly related to current events.

Take care of your mental health.  If you’re experiencing stress or anxiety about these, or other events, your child will notice.  Make sure to take care of yourself.  If you need help dealing with anything, get help for yourself as well.

If your concerns are more immediate, the Department of Behavioral Health operates an emergency mobile crisis services to provide mental health supports for children and youth.  If you need help, please call 1-888-793-4357. 

These and other tips can be found at http://www.nctsn.org/trauma-types/terrorism

In addition, the DC Public Library offers a list of Web and book resources at http://dclibrary.org/helpingkidscope.