What To Say To A Child When Terror Attacks Become Routine
A developmental psychologist in Turkey offers some answers.
ISTANBUL — In the past year, more than 10 terrorist attacks in Turkey claimed the lives of at least 300 people.
Terror, sorrow and trauma have now spread to the big cities. We are psychologically damaged by the attacks in central Ankara and Istanbul — two cities we had believed to be well protected. Meanwhile, attacks have spread in frequency around Europe in the past two weeks.
We are worried and scared. But never mind us. What about children? How are we going to protect children who have to live with violence as part of their daily lives and keep them from becoming psychologically damaged adults?
Professor Dr. Bilge Selcuk, director of the child and family studies laboratory at Koc University's department of psychology, says that children do not fully comprehend events they hear about from their parent's conversations, and everything that is not completely understood increases a feeling of anxiety: "Since children's ability for self-control is not yet fully developed, their feelings of anxiety and fear are increased and it is harder for them to deal with these emotions."
In cities where there is a bomb attack almost every month, parents talk about staying at home, avoiding the metro and other crowded places and paying attention to people who look suspicious. They caution their children to "be careful" and to keep their eyes open.
Selcuk recommends abstaining from offering such advise.
"You are informing the child that there are threats in an environment that is impossible for him to control and you're saying, â€˜Be careful, protect yourself.' This increases the level of anxiety and stress for children. And long-term stress and anxiety can damage both physical and mental health. They can develop learning, sleeping and eating disorders," she says.
Moreover, this type of advise encourages children to constantly search for threats. They start examining people around them, their physical attributes, their clothes and their behavior. This constant sense of threat breeds feelings of insecurity and generates discrimination in society. People start seeing anyone who is different from them as a potential threat and feel hostile to those who are not one of them.
"If it were possible to detect terrorists from their appearance, intelligence agents would not have any difficulty finding them," Selcuk says. "Giving children and teenagers a task that even the best security forces cannot accomplish damages their health. It also causes societal discrimination, marginalization and animosity. When people who live together start seeing each other as potential threats, violence becomes widespread in society."
So what should we do?
Selcuk says it's important to avoid emotionally loaded or discriminating language that increases anxiety. She says that children should stay informed with simple language which doesn't hold the child responsible for security and takes the weight off their shoulders.
"We need to teach our children how to unite as a community without discriminating against anyone and to act in solidarity. Sometimes politics benefits from singling out differences, polarization and sharpening divides. We, ordinary citizens, are not part of this type of politics. We should stick to basic human values independent of any political stance, recognize the disadvantaged and heed to a life of peace," says Selcuk.