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Talking with Your Child About Violence, Terrorism, and Disasters

Recently, I’ve had to explain events to my 10-year-old daughter that I struggled to comprehend myself: terrifying violence, natural disasters, and terrorism.

Only a few days ago in Las Vegas, a man killed more than 50 people and wounded 500-plus more. It wasn’t in a war or a natural disaster. This was a man who did something horrendous and terrifying, something we don’t have many answers for.

In September, I had conversations with my daughter about the volunteer work I did in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and why I went. I shared stories of people who had lost everything, both adults and kids, who were staying in shelters because their homes were gone. I showed her images of the rubble piled outside houses, but I also showed her a picture of myself in front of the Red Cross disaster vehicle that I rode to distribute food and water, and pictures of the many other volunteers I worked with.

On the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, we discussed the question of why someone would do that. We talked about what a terrorist is. Pretty heavy topics for a 10-year-old. Heavy and important.

We need to have conversations with our children about terrorism, disasters, and violence. Catastrophic events are no longer limited to just the morning papers or local news, but they’re on the radio in the car, the podcasts we listen to as we make dinner together, or on the Facebook pages they see. Kids talk about these events in school and on the bus and the playground. Kids know these things are happening, and as parents and those who love children, we need to know how to talk about them.

There are things that we can do to help our children in the wake of death and devastation. All children need to feel safe. As adults, we know that we can never fully protect them. Hurricanes will come and terrorists will attack innocent people on the streets or the subways or in office buildings. People will go on violent, nonsensical rampages and cause as much death and destruction as they can. In response, there are some things that children need to hear:

  • Tell them that they are loved and that although terrible things happen, you and others work so hard to keep them safe. “You are so loved, and yes, some really awful things happen in the world, things that even we as adults can’t understand. But it is our job, and the job of adults, to keep you safe.”
  • Acknowledge that there are people who do hurt others, but their numbers are so much smaller than those who help. “There are some bad people out there, but there are so many more good people, such as police, doctors, teachers, moms and dads, friends and family, who will take care of you.” For younger children, talk about all the people in their lives who love them and care about their well-being. Talk about times when good people have helped you, such as a time when your car was in an accident and a someone called 911 for you, or the person who found your lost cat.
  • Let them know that there are things they can do to help. When I left to volunteer with the Red Cross, I spoke with my daughter about why I was going and what I was going to do. We talked about all the different ways that people helped, such as the volunteers who provided showers, cooked food, brought in blankets and toys and clothes for those impacted by the disaster. In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, show them the pictures of the thousands of people lining up to donate blood. Show them stories about children who have raised money or run a food drive or collected items for those in need, and talk about ways that they might want to help.

We need to acknowledge the violence and suffering and fear and hate. But we cannot forget to talk about strength and the goodness in people, about helping one another.

There are terrible things that happen, and that will happen, in our world. We can’t protect our children 100%, and it’s a frightening thought. But we can help them feel safer and empowered so that they are not crippled by fear of the unknown.

As a family, you can do things to help those who are hurting, such as participating in fundraising drives or helping gather provisions for those in need. Kids can get involved. They need to know that they can help.  When children feel like they can help, they will be more inclined to believe that when they are scared or hurting, others will help them.

This is how we build resilience in our children.

Photo by Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash

Talking with Your Child About Violence, Terrorism, and Disasters

Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Columbus, Ohio. She works with individuals and couples, and specializes in relationship counseling. She's now offering online counseling for residents of Ohio. Stay Connected . Follow her on twitter; and connect with her on Facebook.

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APA Reference
Harmon, J. (2017). Talking with Your Child About Violence, Terrorism, and Disasters. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Oct 2017
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