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How To Talk To Kids About Terrorism


Photography by Photo by Maia Harms; Collage Element Added by Mother

The world can feel like a pretty scary place, especially if you’re the kind of parent who keeps one eye on the news. It’s easy to let domestic and international terror attacks grip our psyches, keeping us on edge with feelings of fear that one day we too might be unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But how rational is this thinking, and indeed how likely is the risk in the first place? How do we explain terrorism to our kids so that they are vigilant but not freaked out? How should we stay calm ourselves so that our little ones don’t inherit our worry?

Thankfully, Juliette Kayyem put things in perspective for us. A national security analyst for CNN and Boston Public Radio, Kayyem lectures on International Security at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and is a member of Secretary Jeh Johnson’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, as well as the Council on Foreign Relations. Kayyem also served as the Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs in the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security and was Massachusetts’ first Undersecretary for Homeland Security. She has a memoir—Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Your Home and Our Homeland—and is a mother of three. Here, our conversation about how to talk to kids about terrorism.

A parent’s worry is overwhelming enough without having to think about these things. How realistic is it that we’re actually going to have to live through something like this?
“It’s very unlikely, but it’s not zero. If you want a world where that risk is zero, then you shouldn’t have kids, honestly. So, part of what we need to do for our kids is what I call ’embrace the vulnerability.’ In other words, accept that there are going to be vulnerabilities for living in a democracy and living in an urban environment or going to a movie theater. You just have to do everything possible to minimize those risks. That’s where at Homeland Security—the counterterrorism world—and what we do at home are the same thing. All we can try to do is minimize the risk and maximize the defenses and live our lives in the way we ought to. That’s how I think about it whether the risk is .00001% or it’s more likely, you know, with gun violence or something like that.”

What can the average parent do to reduce the risk?
“Obviously one of the biggest challenges is to engage the population about risks in a way that doesn’t make them tune out or freak out. One way for parents to think about it is to not think about ‘how would I stop something bad from happening?’ Instead, we talk about ‘See Something, Say Something.’ We ask ourselves, ‘What if something big happened? What would I wish I would have done?’ That’s where communication and keeping your head all come into play. The factor that makes a resilient child in a disaster or tragedy is prepared parents. In other words, your responsibility is to say you have accepted the vulnerability and are prepared for it, however unlikely it is. And the good thing is that how you prepare for that unlikelihood is almost the same for how you prepare for any other potential list of disasters. The level of communication with your child is not just age-dependent, it’s maturity dependent.”

It’s not irrational for parents to be concerned about terrorism, because that’s what terrorists want, right? They want you to be fearful. So, the way to counter that is to really brace yourself. It’s empowering.
“Right. So, it’s unlikely you’ll experience an attack firsthand, but when you watch the news it seems like it’s imminent.”

For kids who might be exposed to the news, how do you explain terrorism without scaring them?
“Your job is to put it in perspective for them as far as the ratios, the likelihood, and the geography. You have to contextualize it. The United States is a welcoming society with all kinds of people, so you have to make it sort of a civics lesson. If you’re seeing on the TV that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, make sure that your reaction is one that you’ll be OK if your kids see it.”

How should these messages be tailored to children of different age groups?
“For teens, especially given their mobility, I treat them as just younger adults. At this age, the difference between a 10th graders’ capacity and a freshman in college’s capacity is very small. There might be nuances, but you have to treat them as if they’re fully plugged in and engaged with the world. Talk to them not exactly as you would talk to a peer, but definitely don’t infantilize them. It’s real, they see it. Try to put it in perspective for them and to set the tone. You could say: ‘Look, this could happen, but it’s not likely. If something were to happen, here’s what we’ve done—and we’ve taken ownership of it.’ That sense of empowerment means a lot to kids. Kids are smart enough to know, and they also get preparedness. They get seat belts and bike helmets. So, I think for the kids in-between elementary school age and being a teenager, it’s really about their maturity level. It’s about sitting down and talking to them about what we might do if something bad were to happen. And then also remember to tell the stories of resilience, as you’ve heard them. How, you know, after Orlando or 9/11, those cities came together. The stories that we tell actually matter a lot.”

Given the real terror threats that you’ve had to deal with in your career, how do you stay sane, calm, and optimistic?
“Because I’ve seen the other side. When you’re with communities who have suffered so much or are suffering as much as we’ve seen, you’re struck by how amazing people are and how their general nature leans towards goodness. And the other thing is because I am prepared. I practice what I preach. I feel empowered. My kids are in public school and they get the active shooter training. You might say, ‘I can’t believe they have to do that!’ But, while gun control would be great, a world with unicorns and fairy tales is not happening in our lifetimes. And it’ll never happen in anyone’s lifetimes. So, accept it, fight the policies, or promote gun control and all the things that can make it better, but, still, you’ve got to own the potential that something bad can happen and be prepared for it. That sense of empowerment is what makes me generally optimistic.”

For more on our “How To Talk To Your Kids” column, check out our piece on How To Talk To Kids About Gender, How To Talk To Kids About White Privilege, and How To Talk To Kids About Death.

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