UT Extension Responds to Paris Bombings

Talking with children

It's important for parents to let children ask lots of questions when discussing scary topics like war and terrorism.  Photo credit iStock.com/kali9. 

Talking with children about war and terrorism can be difficult. Many parents feel the need to protect their children from the harsh realities of violence, especially when the attacks are abroad. However, with the recent attacks on Paris, Beirut, and Syria, children may have questions or concerns about what is happening around the world.

University of Tennessee Extension experts from the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences have suggestions on how to talk with children about war and terrorism. Dr. Heather Wallace, assistant professor and human development specialist, and graduate student Hayley Moran, say children’s fears following a terrorist attack are typically underestimated. “According to a 2008 study by Burnham and Hooper
in the Journal of Loss and Trauma, young children often experience what is called ‘distant trauma,’ which is a reaction to a disaster even when the child is at a safe distance away,” says Moran. Additionally, girls are more likely than boys to experience fear after a violent event.

Wallace and Moran suggest parents consider these approaches to managing children’s awareness of scary world events: 

Pay close attention to the media your child is exposed to. Try to avoid news broadcasts that show violent video clips or images.

2.     Talk to your child’s teacher. Although these attacks were abroad, many children may be having discussions in class about what they have heard or seen. Try to keep the information they are receiving from school consistent with what you and your child are discussing at home.

3.     Be careful when making promises. Only make promises that you as a parent can control. Instead of promising a child “something like this will never happen in our city” say “I will do everything in my power to keep you and our family safe.”

4.     Avoid making generalizations about entire groups of people. Instead of referring to an entire race, nationality, or religion, remind your child about diversity and tolerance. For the Paris bombings, try to refer to “terrorist groups” rather than “Muslims.”

5.     Let your child ask a lot of questions. If a child repeats a question, they might just be looking for reassurance that they are safe.

Even though talking with children about tough subjects can be uncomfortable, it is important to let your child know that the door is always open to discuss things they fear, says Wallace. “Listening to what your child has to say also gives you an opportunity to discuss the difference between facts and opinions, and allows you to clear up any rumors your child may have heard,” adds Moran.

For more information visit the website for the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and the National Child Trauma Stress Network​ and search for the term “war and terrorism.”

For additional information about child development, you may also contact your local county UT Extension Family and Consumer Sciences agent at the county Extension office.

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Dr. Heather S. Wallace, UT Extension Family and Consumer Sciences, 865-974-7193​