News of terrorist attacks is on TV almost daily, and the threat of terrorism affects everyone, including children. Being aware of our reactions and enhancing our sense of control may help us to handle both children’s fears of terrorism and our own.
Acts of terror directly target our children’s feelings of safety, as well as our own. We are scared of being victims of a future terror attack, and this feels like a type of threat we have little power to predict or control. The possibility that we may not be able to protect our children from harm is upsetting.
As a researcher studying fear and anxiety in children and parents, I think being aware of our reactions in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, and enhancing our sense of control may be effective strategies: they kill two birds with one stone by helping us to handle both children’s and our own fears of terrorism.
Distress, fear, and worry are healthy human reactions in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. The fact that we do not have a first-hand experience of being there does not really matter, as we can learn from observing other people’s aversive experiences that we see on the news every day. Feelings of distress and anxiety helped our ancestors to switch to emergency mode in the presence of danger and prepared them to respond with flight/fight reactions. Being stuck in the emergency mode in the absence of actual danger, however, is harmful. It is important to stay tuned in to your own, and your children’s reactions to the attacks. If your worries or your child’s worries about a possible future attack remain excessive and interfere with daily life, it is important to seek professional support.
If you experience strong anxiety and worry in response to terrorist attacks, it is very likely that this will be reflected in your parenting behavior. Children can acquire fear by picking up non-verbal and verbal anxiety expressions from significant others in new situations. Strong emotional reactions or avoidance of the topic by parents or teachers increases ambiguity about what has happened and could amplify your child’s feeling that something isn’t right. Being as accessible, honest and reliable as possible may be the best way to help children to process what has happened.
Enhancing our sense of control over what can happen
To overcome the feeling that a potential attack can happen at any time, it may be helpful to take a look at the actual statistics. These reveal that the chance of dying in a terrorist attack is in fact far smaller than we perceive (far smaller, for example, than the chance of dying in a car accident or from cancer).
We have some power
Despite our perception that we have no control, we do in fact have some power to minimize the possibility of a future terrorist attack. Governments are taking precautions and safety measures, and many professionals in a variety of institutions (including police and military forces) work to ensure our security as citizens. Getting in touch with these institutions and professionals, and informing ourselves and our children about what is being done and how we can contribute, will enhance our sense of control. Especially meeting these professionals in person will help children to get a more concrete picture of the actual measures taken and people involved.