How to talk to kids about war and terrorism

Our televisions and social media outlets have been inundated with images and reports of violence, war, pain, and turmoil. As much as we may try to protect our children from these images and reports, kids of all ages have probably seen and heard what is happening around the world and are looking to adults for guidance. Children of all races, religions, all gender identities, all cultures and social classes must have a safe space to speak and ask questions. Adults, educators and parents, may not have all the answers, but we should encourage their questions and listen to their concerns.

Before addressing the concerns and questions of your child, it is important that you allow yourself to take a breath and address your own feelings and concerns. Your child is looking to you, so you want to give yourself a moment to prepare to address these topics calmly. A good place to start is to discuss what they may have already seen, heard, or already know.

How to talk about war and terrorism:

  • Use age-appropriate language – Tailor your language to your child’s age and understanding
    • Use simple and age-appropriate words to explain the situation.
  • Create a safe environment – Ensure your child feels safe and comfortable during the conversation. Find a quiet and comfortable place to talk.
    • Have a comfort item close by.
    • Wait until you have the time to give your child your full attention.
    • Put away your phone so you can focus on the conversation.
  • Encourage questions – Let them ask questions and express their feelings. Be prepared to provide honest, age-appropriate answers.
    • Follow their lead. Some kids may seek to know more, and some may be content knowing the basics.
    • Give them time to think and process.
    • Reassure them they can ask questions at a later time. This is not a one-time conversation.
  • Be honest and factual – Provide accurate information without graphic details to the best of your ability.
    • Focus on the basis of the situation and avoid speculation.
  • Emphasize safety – Reassure your child that they are safe and people are working to keep them safe.
    • Reassure them that there are many helpers to help and support them, and trying to help and support those living through the conflict.
  • Promote empathy and share feelings – Encourage empathy by discussing the impact of violence on innocent people and the importance of peace and understanding.
    • Express your own emotions appropriately to model how to cope with difficult situations.
  • Monitor media exposure – Limit their exposure to news coverage as graphic images can be distressing.
    • So much information is being shared that the images can have a lasting detrimental impact on you and your child. Be extra vigilant in what your child is looking at.
  • Offer coping strategies – Teach them healthy ways to cope with their feelings.
    • Encourage them to talk, draw, or write about their emotions.
    • Do activities together.
    • Offer to participate in a kindness activity or choose where to donate money to help.
  • Maintain routine – Stick to regular routines as much as possible to provide a sense of stability and predictability.
    • Continue with going to school and seeing friends.

Be patient with your child and with yourself. We don’t have to get these conversations with our children perfect on the first try. These are conversations that you can keep having, revisiting, and expanding. Your child may not be ready to talk about their feelings. Keep an eye out for clues that your child may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes. If you notice that your child is withdrawing, struggling to talk about their feelings, or is always down, consider contacting the school or a counselor to get support.

Written By School Mental Health Resource & Training Center

A project of the Mental Health Association in New York State.