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Talking to Children about Terrorism: By the Numbers
Age appropriate responses for parents and others

By Judy Myers-Walls
Child Development Specialist
Purdue Extension

While children may not be directly affected by the tragic events surrounding the terrorist attack on America, they will have questions and concerns about what it means for their world.

While news reports were not intended to alarm children, it is impossible to protect or shield children from knowledge of an event of this size. They have heard or seen media reports and adults discussing the issue, and they can tell that the adults around them are concerned and upset. School evacuations and lockdowns will add to their level of concern and it is critical that the adults in their lives - parents, teachers, and guardians - help children deal with and process this event.

Young children. Preschool children will be very confused by these events. Many young children do not know how to tell if something happened to them or to other people. They will be very sensitive to what adults are feeling. Young children can be an important asset to adults at this time, too, however. Holding and hugging young children can be reassuring to both the adults and the children.

Elementary school children. Some school-age children will want to know explanations of the events and the factors involved. It is important to assess each child's level of understanding to see if he or she is capable of understanding the difference between the media reports and the entertainment shows they're used to watching. Help school-age children understand where the attacks occurred and where those cities are in relation to your location. They will benefit from expressing their ideas in various forms, such as art, letters, and music and with puppets. They also would benefit from taking some kind of action, such as writing letters, preparing a display for the community, or collecting items to help survivors.

Adolescents. Adolescents will want more details and will have more skills and coping strategies to deal with the event, but they still will not deal with it the same way that adults do. Because adolescents tend to look at the world in a black-and-white fashion, they may want to know who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. It would be helpful to guide them toward separating the evil of the event from the value of people. Adolescents could easily take the emotions of the event as a call to paint entire groups as enemies or evil. They may be able to understand that the concerns of groups may be legitimate, but that using violence - whether it is a fist, a bomb, or an airplane - is never the best way to deal with frustration or anger.

Young Adults. While people in this age group often feel invulnerable, events this traumatic and close to home may shake their certainty. Young adults will be more knowledgeable than children about the nature of the attacks and the consequences, and their fears will be more realistic. Their methods of coping with those fears may not be. Young adults tend to focus on the cause and may want to take some kind of action, such as getting in a car and driving to a demonstration. Older adults will need to help them keep this in perspective and guide them to positive outlets such as giving blood, collecting money for victims, or attending a vigil or memorial service. They may also want to learn more about geopolitics and world history.

September 2001 from the Purdue Extension website, reprinted with permission. For more information go to http://www.ces.purdue.edu/terrorism/children/index.html