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Children's Conceptions of Terrorists
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In the last section, we discussed five questions children frequently ask about safety and security. These five questions are, will bombs fall on my house, who will take care of me if my parents get killed, why don’t I feel safe, will terrorists hurt me, and do adults worry about war too
In this section, we will discuss four questions that children exposed to stressors created by secondary or media exposure to a terrorist attack may ask. These five questions that children may ask about terrorists are, what is a terrorist, why do terrorists act so crazy, why do terrorists pick buildings with people in them, why do terrorists say that God is telling them to attack people, and is it ok to hate terrorists?
Remember Alice and her five year old daughter Megan from the last section? Alice stated, "I feel more confident now in my ability to answer Megan’s questions about her safety, but I’m still worried about how I answer some of the other questions she asks. When she asks about terrorists, who they are, why they do the things they do… well, that’s such a complicated issue, and I barely understand it myself! How do I explain terrorists to Megan, without making her more scared? What are questions she’s likely to ask?"
4 Questions That Children Exposed to Terrorist Attack Stressors May Ask
♦ Question # 1 - "What is a terrorist?"
I told Alice that one of the first questions Megan might ask is, clearly, "what is a terrorist?" I stated to Alice, "One way you might describe terrorists to Megan is as a person or group of people who try to make other people feel scared. Usually, terrorists do this because they think they are right about something they believe in. They may do terrible things to bring attention to their beliefs." I also encouraged Alice to explain to Megan that terrorists are not ‘bad people from other countries.’
Alice stated, "There’s a little boy whose family comes from Iraq in Megan’s preschool. They’re the nicest people you could meet, honestly. That’s why it blew me away when Megan asked me if Mahmut’s family were terrorists!"
♦ Technique: Families in Other Countries
I suggested to Alice that she might try the Families in Other Countries technique to help Megan draw the distinction between terrorists and the countries they come from.
I stated, "You might put together information from children’s books and the internet that can teach Megan about Iraqi culture, especially how families show they love each other. You might even improvise some costumes. In addition, you might make some foods from that country. If Megan likes dolls or paperdolls, have her dress up some of her toys as well. This may help Megan see that terrorists are very different from most of the people from the countries they come from."
♦ Question # 2 - "Why do terrorists act so crazy?"
A second question children who have been exposed to stressors created by secondary or media exposure to a terrorist attack might ask is "why do terrorists act so crazy?" I stated to Alice, "You might explain the behavior of terrorists by explaining that many terrorists do not respect other people’s rights or lives. Additionally, you could tell Megan that many terrorists do not even respect their own lives."
♦ Question # 3 - "Why do terrorists pick buildings with people in them?"
In addition to "what is a terrorist" and "why do terrorists act so crazy", a third questions children may ask about terrorists is "why do terrorists pick buildings with people in them?" Alice stated, "That was one of the first questions I remember Megan asking about the terrorist attacks, why did they pick a building with people in it. I was so flustered by her question I don’t even remember what I said to her!"
I encouraged Alice to tell Megan that the terrorists who orchestrated the attacks on September 11, 2001 wanted to hurt as many people as possible, and make everyone in America very scared. I stated, "You may want to tell Megan that these terrorists wanted the whole world to pay attention to them. If Megan asks why they wanted the attention, you might tell her that one of the reasons is that the terrorists do not like that Americans are free to believe in anything they choose. To many terrorists, the only right way to believe is their own, and they feel all Americans should believe that they are right."
♦ Question # 4 - "Is it ok to hate terrorists?"
A fourth question children who have been exposed to stressors created by secondary or media exposure to a terrorist attack might ask is, "is it ok to hate terrorists?" I stated, "If Megan asks if it is ok to hate terrorists, it is important to tell her that hatred is a feeling, and that it is one of the strongest feelings people have. You might tell Megan that it is important to remember that our feelings are neither right or wrong, but it is what we do with these feelings that is important.
"So in that sense, it isn’t wrong for her to hate terrorists for the terrible things she did. But you might want to discuss with Megan that hatred is a very ugly feeling. If all we can think about is our hatred, or if we starting all people from a terrorist’s country, our attitudes might become ugly too. I would suggest you tell Megan that it is okay to feel all of our feelings, as long as we don’t let the ugly feelings make us forget to be happy and have pretty feelings too."
In this section, we have discussed four questions that children exposed to stressors created by secondary or media exposure to a terrorist attack may ask. These five questions that children may ask about terrorists are, what is a terrorist, why do terrorists act so crazy, why do terrorists pick buildings with people in them, why do terrorists say that God is telling them to attack people, and is it ok to hate terrorists?
In the next section, we will discuss four aspects of helping parents create a "conversational comfort zone" for children experiencing stress due to secondary or media exposure to a terrorist attack. These four aspects are the 5 "W"s, acknowledging feelings, offering concrete information, and offering ways to cope with feelings.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Eisenberg, N., & Silver, R. C. (2011). Growing up in the shadow of terrorism: Youth in America after 9/11. American Psychologist, 66(6), 468–481.
Oppenheimer, L., & Mandemaker, E. (2008). Children's conceptions of terrorists: Exploratory studies. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 14(2), 193–213.
Wessells, M. G. (2016). Children and armed conflict: Introduction and overview. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 22(3), 198–207.
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