Even if terror events happen overseas and not in our own cities, they can still trigger fear in children who find out about them on TV or through friends. How can we reassure them?
For very young children, if possible, prevent them from being exposed to media reports or adult conversations regarding terror events. Even if they don’t yet understand words, they are very perceptive of tone of voice and our feelings.
For older children, it may be impossible to avoid their exposure to world events—and you don’t necessarily want them to live in a bubble. It helps to turn the television off sometimes. Especially important is their use of social media, where there may not be age-appropriate filters in place.
The most important thing you can do is to listen to their concerns and validate their fears. Don’t simply brush them off with a “There’s nothing to worry about.” As Shane Warren, a counsellor based in Sydney, says, “Never discourage your children from talking about the fears they may be having, nor create fears by pushing conversation onto them that they are not ready for. The secret here is to listen. The words and actions of your children will tell you what they are feeling and what support they need.”
Dr Steven Rosenberg, a psychotherapist based in Philadelphia, USA, warns that children will be more worried if they think you are too afraid to explain what’s happening. “It’s important to tell children that the threat of terrorism is real,” he says, but reassure them the chances an attack will happen to them are very low.
Talk some more
“By creating a safe place to ask questions and to talk about what is happening, you minimise the risk of terror anxiety developing,” says Shane. “Anxiety is a future fear belief—we are not anxious about what is happening before us, but rather, anxious [that what we] are experiencing now will affect our future. To help minimise this, answer questions here and now. Normalise the feeling of fear, sadness or apprehension so that you can talk positively about the future using solid facts about your past experiences.”
“Children take their emotional cues from the adults around them,” says Steven. “Avoid appearing anxious or frightened. Reassure children they are safe. Remind them that emergency workers, police, firefighters, doctors and the government are in charge. All is good and we are safe.”
The way we go about our daily lives has a vital impact on the amount of fear and anxiety our children feel. While we need to practically ensure their environment is safe and secure, Dr Janet Hall, a psychologist and author of Fear-Free Children, advises us to maintain a routine as best as we can. “Children thrive on rules and structure. They feel safe when they know what to expect,” she says. At the same time, “Teach your child to relax and release the tension which fear produces. As well as being physically healthy and enjoyable, exercise is the universal antidote for high anxiety.”
While there may be times when we’d be tempted to keep our children at home, ask yourself if it is truly necessary. Steven believes schools can be good places for children to feel secure and being with their teachers can be helpful. Just make sure you keep the lines of communication open between home and school.
Keep telling your children that they are safe. These messages may need to be conveyed differently depending on your child’s age. As Steven advises, “For early primary children, provide simple information. Reassure them that they are safe. For upper primary children, answer their questions. Assist them in separating reality from fantasy. For high school kids, validate their opinions. Provide them with the facts that they are safe.”
“Children can defeat anything scary in their imagination and this will help them if they face their fear in real-life,” says Janet. Read relevant stories with your children where you can discuss with them how the protagonists cope with or overcome fear. You can also encourage them to draw. “Children can both express and ‘boss’ their fears through their power over them in depicting them in visual form,” says Janet.
For more information, check out www.psychology.org.au/psychology-topics/talking-to-children-about-terrorism