We live in a time where the fear and emotional uncertainty of terrorism is, unfortunately, very real. With 24-hour television news cycles and a multitude of social media outlets at our fingertips, we are constantly being exposed to reports of terrorism around the globe and in our country in ways that can make even the idea of a terrorist attack feel all too close to home. Our children, especially, can be exposed to high levels of anger, grief, and anxiety that they may not understand or have the ability to cope with.
How children perceive terrorist threats
For your child, the image of terrorism can be both personal and concrete, and therefore, young children especially may show signs of worry. Since children tend to operate from the realm of their own experience and egocentricity, scenes they see on television or social media can be very real and frightening; they may feel particularly threatened and believe that the acts of terrorism they see on TV or hear adults talking about could happen to them. Their vulnerability can, in fact, put them in a state of high anxiety and stress.
In my experience as a researcher and educator, with a Ph.D. in Psychology, I have found that young children may express fears of separation and attachment as anxiety mounts. Older children may become more aggressive and express anger as a way to control their feelings of fear and helplessness.
So how can parents cope with their own anxieties while reassuring their children?
1. Restore routine
If an act of terrorism has occurred, do your best as the parent to restore a sense of normalcy as soon as possible. The confusion and fear your child may feel can be very destabilizing, and sticking to a regular daily routine can help your child find some stability.
2. Communicate in concrete terms
It can be helpful for your child to hear you describe your own feelings in a very literal way so that he/she can, in a sense, get his/her arms around these confusing emotions. Sentences such as “I was so frightened that I felt like my stomach dropped, the way you feel in an elevator,” help describe feelings literally, and gives your child an example to which he/she can relate.
3. Practice the empathic process
Encourage your child to share his/her feelings freely, and remember to listen with empathy and without judgment. Through this listening and exchange of feelings, children and parents reconnect.
4. Pay close attention
It is very important for parents at this time to know their child’s history of emotional stress and to reach out, with both actions and words, to make your child feel reconnected. Furthermore, if your child has experienced trauma such as divorce in his/her history, he/she may become especially anxious at this time and need extra reassurance both verbally and physically. Never discount your child’s feelings, and be very generous with your hugs.
5. Offer reassurance of protection
Because children feel vulnerable, they want to know that parents and other important adults such as babysitters, teachers, and mentors can and will protect them. Children will take their cue from their parents. If you stay calm and confident, you will inspire comfort and security in your child. You can even offer reassurance simply by putting a night light in your child’s room to help him/her feel safer at night. Remember that your child looks to you, the parent, for protection, and you must not burden your child with your own anxieties. If necessary, you should reach out for professional help to guide and support yourself, your partner, as well as your child.
6. Give age-appropriate information
While it is important to be honest about terrorist events, it is equally important to do so in context while communicating with your child in age-appropriate terms. By listening and talking, you can dispel rumors and share what children are hearing in school as well as in the media.
7. Monitor media exposure
Parents must parent, and this requires you to monitor younger children in relation to their media exposure. Know what your child is watching on television at all times, and carefully monitor all internet access.
8. Partner with your child to create a plan for emergencies
If your child feels involved, he/she will feel empowered. After you work together to create a plan (i.e. what happens if something bad happens while you are at work and your child is home with the babysitter), practice and rehearse it with your child through modeling and role-playing.
Finally, parents must take their own authority, meaning you know your child – and his/her needs – the best. In times of confusion and potential high anxiety involving terrorism, be there for your child as much as possible: focus your attention on your child, be empathetic, loving, and reliable. Don’t worry about spoiling your children in helping them deal with their fears regarding terrorism; you cannot spoil children with love.