Talking with your children about... War and terrorism

When Scripture Union undertook research into children and faith, as part of the development of Guardians of Ancora, we heard from many parents, carers and group leaders who struggled to know what to say and how to talk with children about big issues.

These ‘Talking with your children about…’ features are part of our response to this expressed need. We hope you find that the ideas and suggestions here help both you and your family.

Issues to think about

In the event of war and acts of terrorism, the media depicts graphic scenes of devastation and destruction, with images of dead bodies, weeping survivors and heavily camouflaged military personnel. Parents often wonder if, when and how to explain these to their children. Their questions are likely to be tough to answer but, as with all important discussions, being honest and keeping communication lines open is essential. Some concerns won't get settled quickly, so be ready to revisit previous discussions as events unfold.

You know your child, their individual personality and temperament. Some children are naturally more prone to be fearful. Such fear may manifest itself in stomach aches, bad dreams, poor sleep patterns, unusual clinging, irritability and so on. Graphic news reports may heighten feelings of anxiety. Some children will simply not pay much attention. At the other extreme, some children can get overloaded and become numb due to the repetitive nature of the reports.

Parents' questions

Q   Can we just ignore the news and hope the children don't see scary images?

A   It's tempting to protect children from unpleasant realities, but ignoring the news, particularly for school-age children, is not really an option. They will see the images in the media or hear about them from others. Letting children keep fear to themselves can be more damaging than frank discussion, so do not be afraid to use the words 'dead' and 'died'. Talking will help you identify specific fears and help your child to express their feelings.

Q   Should we let our children watch television?

A   Research has shown that watching media coverage, especially repeated viewing, can create stress for children even when they are not directly exposed to disaster. Television viewing for young children should be limited. Parents need to watch with their children in order to deal with and share in their reactions and to correct misinformation.

Q   How can we help our children deal with their worry and shock?

A   Continue with established routines. Reassure them that they are safe and that you will not be leaving them. When appropriate, talk about things children might do, such as participating in charitable relief organisations.

Q   How can we help children feel safe?

A   For children who want more information and need reassurance, parents can talk about the role of the United Nations, the Red Cross, international cooperation and public services. Older children may wish to discuss other wars or acts of terrorism, the way children's lives can be affected, and ways in which they can express their concern and support for victims of such events.

Practical advice

  1. Be aware that your child will respond in a way unique to them, their experiences and personality. Pre-school children may confuse facts with their fantasies and fears and seeing the same images over and over again they may think the disasters are actually being repeated. School-age children may equate scenes from a scary movie with news footage and magnify the personal effect of news events.
  2. Wait for children to ask questions. Be alert to the opportunities to raise the issues yourself!
  3. If the war is in your homeland, life will never quite be the same again. Acts of violence and terrorism close to home shake all our securities. How do we balance fear and anger, how do we keep a perspective on the activities of a few and how do we articulate our Christian faith with our family in the midst of acts of hatred? Children reflect the attitudes of parents.
  4. Make time to talk with teenage children and do not give the impression that there are easy answers.
  5. If a parent or other family member is serving in the war, maintain contact by phone calls, email and letters, and send videotaped bedtime stories – whatever circumstances allow. At any age, children's fears will be greater if they have a parent in active military duty. The danger is genuinely great. Maintain contact with support groups for your own and your children's benefit.
  6. Should a death occur in the family due to the conflict, children should be informed, simply and  honestly, without big words and lengthy explanations. This is difficult when the parent is also grieving, but it is better to grieve as a family than to hide or repress feelings. The very young child approaches life with open-minded curiosity. The 'kind' lies of well-meaning adults only serve to shut down natural curiosity and delay the development of healthy coping skills. Children need extra support and the opportunity to express their feelings of loss and abandonment just as adults do.

Teach spiritual truths in response to children's questions

Q   Why?

A   Events such as acts of terrorism or war provide opportunities for greater awareness of biblical truths. The simple but difficult answer to the reason why evil happens is that we do not know. But we know that we can trust God even when we do not understand why bad things happen. Terrorism and war are not twenty-first-century phenomena and they have occurred throughout history, including in accounts in the Bible. Humanity is fallen; injustice is a reality. We are clearly called by God to seek to tackle injustice. He feels for the victims of injustice. For a child there are few options for action, but it is amazing how children identify with campaigns that highlight human suffering, including the suffering that is the result of war. Hang on to the truth that God does not want us to be afraid. Bible verses such as the following are useful to refer to: Psalm 46:1; 56:3; 73:23; John 14:27; Hebrews 13:6; 1 Peter 5:7; Philippians 4:6,7; 2 Corinthians 1:3,4; Romans 12:21; Proverbs 25:21,22.

Q   Basic questions about life and death, God, good and evil, may probably arise.

A   Do your best to answer what you can, and for the rest, wonder aloud with your child. You can definitely provide a faith-filled response to your children's fears or concerns. Reassure children that nothing can separate us from God's love (Romans 8:38). The wonder of what Jesus' resurrection means is worth reflecting on together.

Q   Is the war right?

A   In your home you may have specific beliefs about the rights or wrongs of war in general but in the homes of your children's friends attitudes may be very different. Young children don't understand the politics of war, and may be puzzled when they hear some people are against the war and some support it. They may also hear talk related to religion, and not understand links between religion and a war.

Q   Why do people die?

A   Children need to know that death is a sad part of war and that many people, both military personnel and civilians, die. It is important to deal with death openly. Older children may understand more of the realities about war, and be very afraid of the consequences. They may be interested in the politics, and might even want to get involved themselves. They will NOT simply accept 'potted' answers to their searching questions. Teens can and should express their fundamental questions about the nature of God, human choice and the meaning of life and death these events raise, and these can and should become places of conversation, not lecture, about how we ourselves grapple with these questions.

Q   Why does God allow terrorists?

A   If we look to Jesus, we can get some insights which make sense to children. Jesus was fully conversant with terrorism, anger, hatred and the sorrow of bereavement. He lived in times of political and religious turmoil. The Roman army occupied Israel. Zealots were fighting a guerrilla war to 'free' their country. Many expected the promised Messiah to lead his army against the Romans.

If in this situation today, Jesus' first concern would probably be for those directly caught up in the events – the physically, mentally and emotionally injured, whose lives will never be the same again. He would also have reached out to those immediately affected by the terrorism – wives whose husbands aren't coming home from work, children whose mother didn't collect them from nursery, pupils who won't be seeing their teacher again, or those who live overseas and are struggling to come to terms with their loss from a distance.

Jesus would want to stand with the emergency services too. No amount of training can fully prepare firefighters or paramedics for the carnage that they witness first-hand and nor would he forget nurses, doctors, surgeons and other hospital staff who have to react at such short notice.

But what of the terrorists themselves? Would Jesus be angry (Mark 11:15–18)? Seeing how the moneychangers were cheating in the Temple, he overthrew their tables. Or would it be the forgiving Jesus of the cross (Luke 23:34)? 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.' Moreover he teaches his disciples in Matthew 5:44 to 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'

Jesus' kingdom is not of this world, and his ways are not ours. As we struggle with the maelstrom of emotions that terrorist events stir up in us, we need to ask God to mould feelings of outrage, confusion and empathy into a positive acknowledgement that a time is coming for those who know him when 'he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain' (Revelation 21:4).

We may not understand terrorist motivation, but we know that God's reign is not one of vengeance but of forgiveness and healing. God loves the terrorist too!

What can we do as a family?

  1. Light a candle to remember people you are thinking about, and to remember that Christ is our light.
  2. Pray together for: government leaders; faith leaders; military personnel and their families (in all countries involved); victims and their families; doctors, nurses and others who are helping people; police officers; and families of the terrorists.
  3. Share Bible verses together. For example: Psalm 46; 139:1–16; Proverbs 25:21,22; 1 Peter 5:7; Romans 12:21.
  4. School-age children may wish to donate pocket money to disaster funds or get involved with school fundraising activities. Encourage your children to think about how you may help as a family.
  5. Emphasise with your children that these acts of terrorism were caused by very specific individuals and NOT a whole people, and certainly not an entire religion. Now, more than ever, if they have Muslim friends they need to affirm their friendship.

Adapted from Scripture Union Family Ministry Web pages.

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