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How to talk to children about terrorism

People gathered near a makeshift memorial at the Place de la Republique in Paris on Nov. 23 in tribute to the victims of the Nov. 13 terror attacks.
People gathered near a makeshift memorial at the Place de la Republique in Paris on Nov. 23 in tribute to the victims of the Nov. 13 terror attacks.AFP/Getty Images

Q. The terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, and Mali have been all over the news, and I'm not sure how to talk about this — or if I should talk about this — to my children. They're 6, 10, and 13, and the 10-year-old struggles with anxiety. Any advice?

Jeff: I came face to face with terrorism's impact on the psyches of children and parents on Sept. 11, 2001, when my then-fiancée and I were shopping for wedding bands in Lower Manhattan. Among the most gut-wrenching in a flood of haunting memories from that morning was the sight of freaked-out parents trying to soothe their terrified kids. The idea of bringing children into the world suddenly seemed fraught with peril. And yet there we were two years later in a birthing room, our brand-new baby boy having delivered us the happiest moment of our lives.

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So when the questioner asks for advice, I can't help but stress how important it is for us to not allow recent world events to skew our perspective on what's at stake here. It's totally understandable that a parent's protective instincts would be triggered by the horrendous news of the day. Our fundamental job, after all, is to keep our children safe and feeling secure. But as we shoulder that responsibility, let's not forget that our kids have a fundamental job, too. They're the next generation, and what they bring to adulthood is going to matter. So take care to not fill children with fear, lest there be no room for the compassion that sustains our species.

Kathy: Since you mentioned the next generation, Jeff, I'll add that, with older kids, I realize more than ever that my job is not just to raise children, but to raise citizens. And good citizens must stay informed. I also can't avoid current events (and I don't want to) because my daughter Tess's seventh-grade social studies teacher folds it into her curriculum, and my high school sophomore is taking a journalism class, with the day's news covered in each session.

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Tess's teacher showed her pupils a Paris bombing report from a kids' news network: The footage included broken glass on the street and memorials left by grieving Parisians, but no gore. That strikes me as age-appropriate: sad, and thought-provoking, but not visually traumatic. The teacher then talked about the slogan "Je suis France," and asked the kids to say what that meant to them. After school, this led to a rich conversation at home too.

So my first tip for the questioner is to preview a relevant video from Channel One News or www.CNN.com/studentnews, and see how they frame the issues, because the producers give a lot of thought about what to show, and what not to show. Then the questioner can air the report to the 13-year-old, and judge whether to show it or summarize it to the 10-year-old. After that, try to start a conversation.

Jeff: The conversation at home is a starting point in my family. As much as I trust the teachers and other professionals at my children's school to sensitively address topics ranging from bullying to sexuality to this quagmire, I have to acknowledge that I'm wary of kids' takeaway from those discussions. I've been around my son's seventh grade classmates enough to know that one size doesn't fit all — that uncomfortable topics draw responses across the gamut, from contagious anxiety to goofiness worn like a suit of armor. So my wife and I prefer to raise topics with him and his sister, who's 10, before the school does. That allows our kids the space to experience their initial feelings in privacy and not get caught up in classroom groupthink. Or groupfreakout.

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This doesn't mean we turn our living room into the "Charlie Rose" set. We simply broach the subject, as gently as can be, and follow the kids' lead. Sometimes they have thoughts or questions. Other times the line of inquiry swiftly moves on to what's for dessert. But a seed is planted. Nothing they hear from that point on — at school, from their friends — feels like an out-of-nowhere shockwave.

Kathy: We also try to talk to the kids before they hear about it elsewhere. But the truth is, Jeff, that gets harder as your kids get older and you're less able to control their outer world.

But let me backtrack to the questioner's younger child, the 6-year-old. When my kids were young, I often referenced this great quote from Mister Rogers: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" Even now, my kids and I still make a habit of looking for the helpers. But "helpers" for us has expanded beyond heroic first responders to those who mourn, who question, who act — yet keep their humanity, no matter what.

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There are so many strands to the current crisis: One minute Tess and I were talking about the refugee crisis, the next minute the terrorist events, and the next doing the complex work of disentangling the Syrian refugees from the Islamic State. When I told her Donald Trump's comment about making American Muslims wear some sort of identifying symbol on their clothing, Tess literally gasped. She's read "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" and we've talked about how Jews had to wear the Star of David in World War II. That gasp made me feel I was raising my own helper, a thoughtful citizen for the world my generation will bequeath. It's a great parental challenge. It's also a privilege and a duty.


Jeff Wagenheim and Katharine Whittemore were founding editors at the parenting magazine Wondertime. Whittemore now writes the "Seven Books About…" book review column for the Boston Globe. Wagenheim writes for Sports Illustrated and the Globe, covering sports and the arts.