Tackling terror on the home front

Nightly bombardment of recent terrorist atrocities in France, Turkey and the US on the TV news and and social media is taking its toll on our kids – and a leading child psychologist has some strategies for Australian parents to help counteract the harm it does.

Professor Matt Sanders, who devised the world-renowned Positive Parenting Programme practised in 26 countries around the world, has said that live streaming on sites like Twitter and Facebook have made horrifying images and sounds more accessible.

But as kids can’t often understand what they see, they’re reacting to traumatic events by having nightmares, bedwetting, becoming overly clingy, or highly anxious and worried. In teenagers it can manifest as flashbacks, disturbed sleep and severe anxiety.

“We’re living in a time when children are regularly being exposed to tragic loss of innocent lives through TV and social media,” said Sanders, a Professor of Clinical Psychology and the Director of the Parenting and Family Support Centre at the University of Queensland. “Of course this kind of thing has always been around – it’s just that now it’s more shared through TV and social media.

“Younger kids think that what they see on TV may happen to them in their bed, in their home, in their neighbourhood. They’re naturally worried about their safety. The difference in older kids is at least they can talk about it.

“We cannot protect them from everything in an age of technology, so as parents the dilemma is identifying the traps and hazards, and knowing what to do about them.”

Little clinical research has been done into the effects of terror on children, though anecdotally, he says, parents are reporting that kids are being distressed by what they’ve seen, heard or read about.

Older kids – those over 11 beginning adolescence – start to develop a level of rationality; they have a “better comprehension of world events and are able to process the negativity better.”


As ever, the soundest parental approach for kids of all ages is balancing the emotional needs of their age with considered conversations that don’t sweep concerns under the carpet, including Matt’s advice to:

  • Clarify what they know about the event they’ve seen: “What they know about it will determine what you need to say to them.” So if for example your eight year-old has seen a Syrian refugee dying at sea trying to get to Italy, your response would be different to that of seeing their grandmother pass away.
  • Make it clear the immediate danger is over, that those things won’t be happening in their house, their street, their neighbourhood.
  • If you don’t overreact, they won’t, so parents need to temper their responses to world events they see or read about. “We have a better capacity to put things in context than children, particularly younger ones. But even with older kids or late teens sometimes it’s better if something really disturbing comes on, just to switch the TV or radio off, and deflect the focus onto something positive.”
  • At all ages parents need to monitor kids’ exposure – when you see something you don’t want them to see, quietly turn the TV off. Don’t make a big deal about it, or they will. This applies to kids as old as late teens, though by that age, discussion is also a part of the process. “This is part of adult life in the 21st century and it’s important for older children to participate in and express ideas about what they’ve been exposed to.”
  • Address the concerns of younger kids – reassure them they are safe and loved. Many express concerns like “Could this happen here?” after seeing for example, the recent atrocity in Nice. “Rather than lie or distort, reassure them it’s highly unlikely it would happen in their street or neighbourhood. Little kids may not always understand everything you say but they’ll understand your reaction to it, so if you imply low danger, they won’t worry.”

And avoid the traps:

  • Encouraging your kids to talk about it too much – digging too deep only encourages more anxiety
  • Discouraging kids to talk about it at all, dismissing their fears as groundless
  • Being overprotective long after the danger has gone
  • Talking at length about your own fears about terrorism and the state of the world.

_____________________________________________________________________There are online programmes parents of kids to aged 11, which can be done at home, teaching social and emotional competencies (evaluated in hundreds of scientific studies) as well as real-time seminars in NSW on raising resilient children to help in your discussions on terror. Go to: triplep-parenting.net for more.

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