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Talking to Children about Terrorism: 
A Guide for Parents, Pastors, Sunday School Teachers

Ministries in Christian Education, a program of the National Council of Churches, is compiling additional information to help with this important topic.   If you have materials to suggest, e-mail MCE Director Patrice Rosner at

Some general advice from the experts
Child Care and Development Division, Children's Defense Fund, an NCC ministry partner.

1. Continuously reassure your children that you will help to keep them safe.

2. Turn off the TV. Overexposure to the media can be traumatizing. If your older children are watching the news, be sure to watch with them.

3. Be aware that your child's age will affect his or her response. Adolescents in particular may be hard hit by these kinds of events. Obtaining counseling for a child or adolescent soon after a disaster may reduce long-term effects.

4. Calmly express your emotions, but remember that a composed demeanor will provide a greater sense of security for your child.

5. Give your children extra time and attention and plan to spend more time with your children in the following months.

6. Let your children ask questions, talk about what happened, and express their feelings.

7. Play with children who can't talk yet to help them work out their fears and respond to the atmosphere around them.

8. Keep regular schedules for activities such as eating, playing and going to bed to help restore a sense of security and normalcy.

9. Consider how you and your child can help. Children are better able to regain their sense of power and security if they feel they can help in some way.

Web-based resources

Faith Groups:

The Episcopal Church
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: youth Bible study
Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Jewish), "A Day in the Valley of the Shadow of Death."
United Methodist Church.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (click on resources to locate the material)
United Church of Christ

Other Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics
American Psychological Association
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
National Association of School Psychologists
Educators for Social Responsibility
MisterRogers/Family Communications:
"Helping Children Deal with Scary News"
Jan's Learning Tree: bibliography of children's books on violence

This list is under construction and will be expanded.

Helping Children Cope
Source: National Association of School Psychologists.

Tuesday's tragic acts of terrorism are unprecedented in the American experience.  Children, like many people, may be confused or frightened by the news and will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react.  Parents and school personnel can help children cope first and foremost by establishing a sense of safety and security. As the nation learns more about what happened and why, adults can continue to help children work through their emotions and perhaps even use the process as a learning experience.

What Parents Can Do

1. Focus on your children over the next day or so.  Tell them you love them and everything will be okay. Try to help them understand what has happened, keeping in mind their developmental level.  

2. Make time to talk with your children.  Remember if you do not talk to your children about this incident someone else will. Take some time and determine what you wish to say. 

3. Stay close to your children. Your physical presence will reassure them and give you the opportunity monitor their reaction. Many children will want actual physical contact.  Give plenty of hugs.  Let them sit close to you, and make sure to take extra time at bedtime to cuddle and to reassure them that they are loved and safe. 

4. Limit the amount of your child's television viewing of these events.  If they must watch, watch with them for a brief time; then turn the set off. Don't sit mesmerized re-watching the same events over and over again.  

5. Maintain a "normal" routine. To the extent possible stick to your family's normal routine for dinner, homework, chores, bedtime, etc., but don't be inflexible.  Children may have a hard time concentrating on schoolwork or falling asleep at night. 

6. Spend extra time reading or playing quiet games with your children before bed.  These activities are calming, foster a sense of closeness and security, and reinforce a sense of normalcy. Spend more time tucking them in.  Let them sleep with a light on if they ask for it. 

7. Safeguard your children's physical health.  Stress can take a physical toll on children as well as adults.   Make sure your children get appropriate sleep, exercise and nutrition.  

8. Consider praying or thinking hopeful thoughts for the victims and their families.  It may be a good time to take your children to church or the synagogue, write a poem, or draw a picture to help your child express their feelings and feel that they are somehow supporting the victims and their families. 

9. Find out what resources your school has in place to help children cope. Most schools are likely to be open and often are a good place for children to regain a sense of normalcy.   Being with their friends and teachers can help.  Schools should also have a plan for making counseling available to children and adults who need it. 

All Adults Should: 

1. Model calm and control.  Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives. Avoid appearing anxious or frightened.

2. Reassure children that they are safe and so are the other important adults in their lives. Explain that these buildings were targeted for their symbolism and that schools, neighborhoods, and regular office buildings are not at risk.

3. Remind them that trustworthy people are in charge.  Explain that the government emergency workers, police, fireman, doctors, and even the military are helping people who are hurt and are working to ensure that no further tragedies occur. 

4. Let children know that it is okay to feel upset.  Explain that all feelings are okay when a tragedy like this occurs.  Let children talk about their feelings and help put them into perspective.  Even anger is okay, but children may need help and patience from adults to assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately.

5. Observe children's emotional state.   Depending on their age, children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can also indicate a child's level of grief, anxiety or discomfort.  Children will express their emotions differently. There is no right or wrong way to feel or express grief. 

6. Tell children the truth. Don't try to pretend the event has not occurred or that it is not serious.  Children are smart.  They will be more worried if they think you are too afraid to tell them what is happening. 

7. Stick to the facts.  Don't embellish or speculate about what has happened and what might happen. Don't dwell on the scale or scope of the tragedy, particularly with young children. 

8. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate. Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that the daily structures of their lives will not change. Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school.   They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society.  They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society.  They will be more committed to doing something to help the victims and affected community.    For all children, encourage them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings. Be a good listener!

In Their Own Words: Children Speak

Mark LaRocca-Pitts, chaplain at Duke University, shares this poem written by a neighbor's 11-year old daughter:

Does the sun not know the pain we've been through?
It keeps on rising.

Do the birds not know the sorrow we know?
They keep on singing.

Do the children not feel what has been done?
They keep on laughing.

Should we?
Should we forget what has happened?
No, not yet.

We will still know the pain.
We will still know the sorrow
And we will still know what happened,

Our life will go on.
Slowly but surely,
Our life will go on.

--Gabrielle Steed, Cary, NC, September 11, 2001.   In memory of the fallen in New York and Washington, D.C.

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