Here’s How to Talk to Your Kids About Terrorism

An early childhood education expert’s tips for discussing difficult topics with children.

By Laura RiceJune 29, 2016 11:30 am

It’s been a nasty news cycle, dominated by images from Attaturk International Airport in Istanbul, a modern cosmopolitan hub connecting the west to the Middle East. Turkey has worked hard to cultivate an image as a haven in a dangerous region. So even though 41 people were killed and more that 200 injured in yesterday’s suicide attacks, the airport has reopened, almost as if making a statement.

The pictures from the attack are not so visually graphic as they are psychologically so. As adults in this age of terrorism, we’ve almost become inured to such scenes. But our kids, not so much. So, how do we answer our children’s questions about terrorist attacks without oversimplifying or worse?

Jennifer Keys Adair, an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin, says that for younger children, the best approach is to emphasize that the attackers have a hatred of people who are different.

“Focus on the fear and the kind of hate that people have when they are willing to do these kinds of things,” Adair says. “What I say is that the people who go do these kinds of things are filled with hate about difference. They don’t want people to be different, they want everybody to be the same, and it makes them angry and scared to have people be really different from them.”

Adair says it is important to explain to children that differences are valuable and to be celebrated.

“When you talk about differences with young children, you have to assure them that we’re not like that in our family, we don’t think about difference that way,” she says. “We appreciate difference, we want to get to know lots of people.”

For older children, take the time to learn about events together, especially when they have questions that you might not be able to answer.

“I think having a conversation is what is really important,” Adair says. “When you don’t know about something, the best thing to do with a kid is to learn about it together. That makes it authentic, sophisticated, and not condescending to them.”

But regardless of age, Adair says to avoid stereotyping and naming specific ethnic groups when discussing attacks.

“What I’m trying to avoid when I talk to my own children is naming specific groups, like religious groups or racial groups, or areas of the country, and more focus on the commonality of their fear of difference,” Adair says. “Because I don’t want my kids walking around profiling.”

Instead, remind them that a person’s religious or ethnic background doesn’t make them a terrorist.

“I have to remind them of all of their friends, and the people they know, and celebrities that are Muslim,” Adair says. “So I tell them it’s not fair to really use that as the main characteristic. You wouldn’t do that about white people. You wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, so now all white people walking around are gonna do something in Oklahoma City.’ We don’t talk like that, so it’s not fair to talk like that about other people.”