Talking to Children About Terrorism and Tragedy

Terrorism and tragedy in the news impact your child in more ways than you may think. Learn how to prevent anxiety and trauma with these tips.

Terrorism and tragedy are all over the news and impossible to ignore. It can be hard to talk to your child about the scary things we see and hear on the news. Many of us pretend our children don’t hear about this at school, with friends or see the images that we see, but they do. The sad reality is, horrific acts have become more common in the world we live in. This impacts their brain chemistry and mood tremendously.

We can certainly shield our children from terrorism and tragedy on TV, but we can’t hide their eyes or ears to the information they hear at school, the images they see at the store or overhear in public; not to mention the anxiety they pick up from us, the adults in their life. We can no longer avoid talking to kids about these events. At Neurogistics, we know how anxiety and trauma can manifest in children and want to help parents and caregivers feel confident when having to discuss these sensitive topics with kids.

Brain Chemistry Changes with Exposure to Terrorism and Tragedy

In addition to the tips and guidance in the paragraphs that follow, our clinician Alyse Snyder, L.Ac.,  notes that “testing your child’s neurotransmitters gives insight into their brain chemistry and can identify if levels are out of balance. Looking at serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, GABA, and glutamate levels give us an opportunity to see if there is an excess or insufficiency of these chemicals and we can provide holistic support if needed. This testing can be a supportive addition if you are worried about how your child is coping or want to see if they are stressed.”

Terrorism and tragedy is all over the news and our children are exposed to the images, as well as information. Here's how to help them.Understandably, many parents want to avoid talking to kids about terrorism and tragedy as we fear it will make them more anxious or traumatize them. We also need to step back and think about how they may be exposed to the news: friends at school, other parents, even kids on their soccer team talk about what they hear. Remember kids try to make sense of the world by talking about it or analyzing it internally.

How Kids Interpret Terrorism and Tragedy

An eight-year-old client told me she was afraid of bombs at her school. Ella, a sweet and sensitive soul, attends a small school with lots of adult supervision. She began having a hard time going to sleep “out of the blue,” her mother said. Her mother shields her from the news, she barely has access to the internet. Where did she get this idea from?

It turns out Ella was running an errand with her mom and saw a newspaper with images after a terrorist attack. She overheard kids on the playground talking about a bomb and attack in another country. This seemingly insignificant exposure impacted Ella greatly.

How to Help Your Child and Yourself

Parents, teachers, and caring adults can help by listening and responding in an honest, consistent, and supportive manner. Most children, even those exposed to trauma, are resilient. Like most adults, they can and do get through difficult times and go on with their lives. The American Academy of Children and Adolescent Psychiatric recommends this guideline for parents when talking about scary stuff like terrorism and tragedy with their kids:

  • Give children honest answers and information. Children will usually know if you’re not being honest.
  • Acknowledge and support your child’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let your child know that you think their questions and concerns are important.
  • Avoid stereotyping groups of people by race, nationality, or religion. Use the opportunity to teach tolerance and explain prejudice. It is also imperative that parents be mindful of how they talk about these topics at home. Kids pick up on your dialogue. Children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They are very aware of how you respond to events. And they learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.
  • Let children know how you are feeling. It’s okay for them to know if you are anxious or worried about events. However, don’t burden them with your concerns. Let them know how you feel better and what makes you feel safe.

Talk to Your Child and Provide Support

I’ve found the following to be helpful for parents struggling with finding the words to help their kids with scary situations:

  • Don’t let children watch lots of violent or upsetting images on TV. Repetitive, frightening images or scenes can be very disturbing, especially to young children.
  • Be mindful of your own media consumption; don’t leave it on in the background or talk about these topics when they’re in the room. They can hear you even when you think they are engrossed in their iPad.
  • Children who have experienced trauma or losses may show more intense reactions to tragedies or news of war or terrorist incidents. These children may need extra support and attention.
  • Watch for possible preoccupation with violent movies or war theme video/computer games. Children who seem preoccupied or very stressed about war, fighting, or terrorism should be evaluated by a qualified mental health professional. Other signs that a child may need professional help include: trouble sleeping and/or nightmares, persistent upsetting thoughts, fearful images, intense fears about death, and trouble leaving their parents or going to school.
  • Help children communicate with others and express themselves at home. Some children may want to write letters to the President, governor, local newspaper, or to grieving families.
  • Let children be children. They may not want to think or talk a lot about these events. It is just fine if they’d rather play ball, climb trees, or ride their bike, etc.

It’s unfortunate that we need to expose our children to this scary world and you don’t have to talk about all the terrorism and tragedy. Rather, explore the things that hit close to home or make national news. It’s likely they are hearing about it. Look, if we don’t start the conversation someone else will.  It’s kind of like the way we look at sex education: would you prefer to tell them the facts or have them hear it from a kid on the bus home from school? I know it can be frustrating, but your child deserves to feel safe and connected to caregivers when hearing about these events.


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Emily Roberts MA, LPC is the clinical therapist for the Neurogistics Children’s Program. She has worked with Neurogistics for over a decade. Emily is also an award-winning author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Becoming Who You Are, Psychotherapist, TV & Media Contributor, educational speaker and parenting consultant.  Express Yourself is available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon. To learn more about Emily click here.


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