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Terror Levels and Anxiety in Children

London Bridge memorial messages and Union Jack flag posted after terror attack - credit ChiralJon on Flickr, flickr.com/photos/69057297@N04/

Tributes at London Bridge after the 2017 terror attack. Credit: ChiralJon, via Flickr (flickr.com/photos/69057297@N04).

The results of a recent YouGov survey have revealed that a third of children in the South East aged 5 to 18 worry about a possible terror attack. 35% of parents interviewed have said this fear is causing anxiety in their children. The YouGov survey, which saw more than 1800 parents included nationally, was commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation to uncover the impact that world events were having on children.

Worrying about unpredictable events is very understandable. Reassuringly, it is easy for parents to reduce this fear to manageable levels. Children fear the things that they can’t fully understand; that said, they are also resilient.

It is really important to be able to reduce a child’s fear before it interferes with their mood. Anxiety left unchecked tends to get worse, rather than the old and false belief of ‘ignore it and it will go away’.

MCR heart with bees symbol of Manchester painted as mural on wall after Manchester terror attacks

David Dixon’s photo of the Manchester bee symbol, used heavily in the wake of the Manchester attack, shows the community coming together. Credit: David Dixon (http://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/43729).

Helpful Tips to Reduce Anxiety about Terror Levels

1. Talk in an age-appropriate way to your children about the unlikely probability of a terror attack in their immediate world.

This will quickly reduce their distress. Simple maths and probability with older children works well, demonstrating that the likelihood of a terror attack happening to them is very small. Last year, a Maryland University study found that, across Europe, you were more likely to be a victim of terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s than you are now. Remind your child that you lived through these times.

Fables, myths and made up stories work with younger children. For instance, a young child quickly grasps that Father Christmas only visits in certain circumstances and at certain times: if they are good, and only at Christmas. Young children don’t need to understand time and frequency to hold this in mind, as they know Father Christmas doesn’t visit every day.   

2. Teach your teenager about some sensible precautions they can take to remain vigilant about their surroundings.

Be careful not to swamp them with too much information, and stick to practical things they can do that make sense in everyday life. For instance, to always have their mobile charged when going out (perhaps carrying a charging cable or lightweight emergency power pack) and being very aware of emergency exits.

In contrast, a younger child is greatly reassured by being told that parents and teachers are there to look after them. This frees them from the burden of worry. Older children feel safer when they feel involved and in control, but younger children need to know that parents and carers are in control.

3. Reassure them that it’s okay to speak to an adult or teacher at any time that they feel a genuine fear.

Do not make fun of them when they do confide in you. If they can’t tell you for fear of ridicule, the anxiety simply stays inside and grows. Should your child be bottling things up unnecessarily, and you’re struggling to get them talking, they might wish to express themselves through drawing, writing or similar activities.

Their school may also be able to encourage them to open up, either as part of PSHE lessons or in school assemblies, perhaps using the Red Cross’ resources for teachers on how to discuss disasters and emergencies. Schools will be aware of the need to teach pupils not to judge other children because of their race or religion, especially in the wake of terrorist incidents, when intolerant opinions can often be voiced louder than ever before.

4. Remind children that it is okay to trust their judgment – if a situation looks suspicious, it may be suspicious.

They need to get away from the situation, if it is safe to do so, and alert an adult who can take the necessary action. If these steps are taken, fear will reduce.

The ongoing public transport campaign, ‘See it. Say it. Sorted‘ (launched in 2016) can also be reassuring, as children will realise the British Transport Police takes reports of suspicious activity seriously and that you can simply send a text message to 61016 to report something suspicious.

5. Images of terror surround us, but it is important not to produce a false picture by blacking out all media representations.

Children will always find out about life events, either through friends, family members or at school, and we shouldn’t expect them to stay ignorant.

We cannot pretend terror attacks never happen, but we can reassure children of any age that they are still rare. What’s more, when they do happen, many people will be on hand to help and, just as the unfolding coverage can upset us, there will also be stories about acts of kindness and bravery from the public during and after an upsetting event.

Talking About Terror Threats if Your Child Has Autism

If your child has autism, there are a range of very specific tools that can be used to reduce their fear. At our psychology clinic, we often use Social Stories: a concept developed by teacher Carol Gray in 1990 to help her autistic pupils.

The use of Social Stories is a very specific way of teaching, via the use of stories with your child, which introduces the concept of anxiety about terrorism in a character or subject in a made-up story. Using this technique, the child is able to understand the concept through the eyes of the character. This is really important when a child is unable to make sense of simple explanation.

Written by a guest contributor for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).

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