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Talking with youth about terrorism

By Sara Langworthy

Newtown. San Bernardino. Charleston. And now Orlando.

In the wake of intense tragedies, these places have stopped being just cities. Their names have become grief-laden synonyms for terror and loss.

So, how should we talk to youth about terrorism and mass shootings?

Speak honestly and encourage questions

Experts in psychological responses to trauma recommend talking honestly with children and youth about these events, while avoiding sharing gruesome details. Opening the door for conversation can help youth understand it’s okay to talk about their reactions to these experiences. Encourage them to ask questions and answer as honestly and appropriately as you can.

Given the age of non-stop connection to social media and technology, it’s important to monitor the dosage of exposure to these outlets in the wake of traumatic events. However, understand that youth may reach out to their social networks to help process their feelings. Use this as an opportunity to ask questions and continue the conversation about what they’re hearing from their friends online, and what questions you can help to answer.

Reassure them

It’s important to remind children and youth of their own safety wherever possible. Terrorism works by destroys a sense of safety and instilling fear. Directly pointing out the forces working to keep youth safe, e.g. emergency responders, law enforcement, and acknowledging their safety when possible helps youth feel more grounded.

It’s also important to understand that children and youth may show stress reactions (e.g. difficulty sleeping, irritability, mood swings, etc.) Some of these reactions are normal and youth should be reminded to engage in activities that make them feel better. If symptoms of stress do not lessen over time, contact a professional for additional help.

Encourage action

Children and youth may feel powerless after events of terrorism. But adults can help to focus youth's minds and energies on being helpers to take back their power. Encouraging youth to become involved in efforts that support victims (e.g. donating blood, fundraising), or to write letters to first responders expressing their thanks is a powerful way for them to take action in a positive and productive way.

For more information on talking with youth about terrorism and mass shootings, see Family Development’s website, or this post from the American Psychological Association.

What other ideas do you have for talking with youth productively about terrorism and mass shootings?

-- Sara Langworthy, former Extension educator, Children, Youth & Family Consortium, which is part of the Extension Center for Family Development

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  1. Sara, thanks for this great post. Perfect timing, given current events here in Minnesota (, which is very much related to your blog, though not directly terrorism, because of how children (and adults) react. We nevertheless feel terrorized, because it forces us to wonder how safe our children (and we ourselves) are. Teach Tolerance provides some wonderful resources for educators and youth workers in helping children cope and learn about these types of issues (


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