Talking to children about Terrorism and Extremism

As I woke this morning I learned, on social media, of the awful news about the bombings in Manchester.  The comments I read lead me to reading articles by various newspapers reporting on the bombing.  I immediately thought about my love of music, my family’s love of music, the fact that we frequently attend music concerts and my own prior fear that one day a music stadium or arena would be targeted.   I thought about the chaos that would have been caused and the families whose lives will have been impacted forever by this awful attack.

Mostly what stuck in my head was the comments from people on Facebook.  Driven by their outrage, sadness and hurt by what has happened.   Some people expressing hurt and sadness for the families impacted, but the comments that stuck in my head were those that were expressing their lack of ability to understand why anyone or how anyone could do such a thing.  I completely resonated with that feeling, how and why do people end up behaving in such extreme ways?

Although I mostly try to protect my children from the news, unless it is aimed at their age group (via NewsRound) I wanted to talk to my children about this incident, as when something like this happens it is almost impossible to protect them from hearing about it.  Many childhood specialists suggest we should protect very young children from the news but if children are likely to hear about something it is definitely worth having a chat.  So I spent a lot of time this morning reading articles of advice, some were good, others left me feeling uneasy.  It did not feel right to describe or define the person that inflicted all of this pain on others as Evil, Bad or Naughty as some articles suggested.  Defining people as ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’ can be really unhelpful.  The reason I disagree with this is because children will be exposed to the words Bad and Naughty a lot in their young lives and often in relation to their own behaviour at home and within schools.  Unless you have removed those words from your vocabulary when describing their behaviour then referring to a suicide bomber as a ‘bad man’ or a ‘naughty man’ may be hugely confusing and frightening to a child.

For me to be able to explain this to my children effectively I needed to understand the psychology of someone that may become a terrorist and having that understanding would give me a far better starting point to talk to my children about what had happened explain what a terrorist or suicide bomber is.

So, how do you become someone that has an inability to consider the innocent people that are harmed by your actions?   I had formed my own opinions already – disillusioned, not belonging, brain-washed, deep rooted mental health problems or psychopaths?

When I began to research the psychology of someone that ends up acting in extreme, violent ways in the name of political opinions I was shocked.  You imagine maybe an unsettled upbringing or poor schooling, however many people that join a movement like this have come from wealthy, well educated backgrounds.

Why do people become Terrorists? 

John Horgan, Pennsylvania University, researched this fact and found that people who are open to terrorist recruitment or radicalisation tend to:

  • Feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised.
  • Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change.
  • Identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting.
  • Feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem.
  • Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral.
  • Have friends or family sympathetic to the cause.
  • Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.

So shockingly to me it would seem it is not because of easily identified mental health problems, psychological problems or extremist education throughout childhood.

However, the one thing that is consistently apparent whenever I read about the psychology of those that act in harmful ways without consideration for others, whether that be in extreme cases like the awful incident this morning or someone that uses violence and control within a relationship or relationships in their life – it is very apparent that they will have been raised without empathy or validation of their feelings, therefore had never learned to empathise with another human being.  Someone that has Narcissistic traits.

What is empathy or the ability to empathise?

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

I think we hugely underestimate the power of empathy and the lack of it shown from perpetrators of violence or those that do harm to other human beings.  When the news report about terrorist activity or radicalisation their is a distinct lack of focus on the characteristics of those that make these harmful choices.

So how do we teach or learn empathy?

Simple: for children to learn empathy, they have to be shown it – throughout their entire childhood from the adults around them.  This is not an easy task for adults that have not been raised with empathy in their own lives.  It is also not an easy task when so few people truly understand how a child’s brain develops and realistic expectations of them at various ages and stages in their lives.  Empathising with a child when they are angry or sad can be incredibly hard.  Validating emotions in children can be incredibly challenging, particularly when their behaviour triggers our own feelings of fear or anger.   We also have been raised to believe it is sometimes better to protect our children from their feelings, by dismissing them or distracting them.

Obviously lack of empathy alone during childhood is unlikely to create someone that has all the traits of a terrorist activist, however the lack of empathy during childhood and a combination of other factors could contribute to an adult with extreme and unvalidated feelings and can lead to a need to be in control in ways that are unhealthy and that do not consider the impact it may have on others.

Rather than describing to children that those that undertake terrorist attacks are Evil, Bad or Naughty – we might do better to practise empathy with our children and describe to them how important it is to learn to empathise and what can happen to those people that are raised with a lack of empathy from their caregivers and adults around them in their formative years.

Here are my tips on how to talk to children, aged 6 and above, about terrorist activity:-

  • Ask open ended questions using terms or words they may be exposed to in the news or playground.
  • Do you know what a Terror attack is?  Do you know what a Terrorist is?  Do you know what a Suicide bomber is? (edit as appropriate)
  • Listen to their answers taking note of the information they perceive as right or slightly incorrect, however let them finish.  Gently put them right on any misunderstandings.
  • Don’t dismiss their feelings or explanations, validate their feelings if they are scared, agree that it is scary and situations like this makes lots of adults feel scared and worried too.
  • Focus on the positive elements within the sad incident.  How many people helped the hurt and injured and the kindness that was shown.  The bravery of the emergency services.
  • Try to put it into context for them.  Remind them that incidents like this are rare.  We may hear lots about it as the news reports on incidents all around the world, and mostly reports on the things that don’t happen very often but are important for people to know.
  • Remind them that if they are feeling worried, they can talk to an adult about how they are feeling.  If they hear something they don’t understand, they can talk to a grown up that they trust.
  • Talk to them about adults that become Extremists or Terrorists and how rare it is for someone to decide to do such harmful things.  Rather than defining someone as ‘Bad’ or ‘Evil’ remind them that those people may have grown up with little kindness, understanding, support and empathy in their lives and those things can grow into extremely horrible feelings and a need to feel in control of things in other damaging ways.

My favourite article for children to read themselves was on NewsRound.


It is very difficult to trust the information above, particularly as we hear words like ‘The War on Terror’.  Our National Media can often report on the incidents in harmful ways, sometimes igniting further hatred or fear.  Our governments have a historical tendency to want to control the issue by responding with violence.

Many specialists in this area argue that we should re-word the war on terror and use phrases like ‘counter-terrorism’.

Social psychologist Kruglanski says: “The notion that terrorists could be talked out of committing violence using peaceful dialogue and a helping hand is no longer an idealist’s pipe dream, but actually the aim of a growing number of “de-radicalization” programs.

Jerrold M Post, In his book, The Mind of the Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to Al-Qaeda  says:-

“The psychological rationale of war is to bring the enemy to its knees and to convince it and its support base that terrorism is counterproductive. And yet experience in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ireland, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip suggests that the use of military force does little to ‘prove’ the inefficacy of terrorism. Military strikes against terrorist targets may temporarily interfere with terrorists’ ability to launch their operations, but they do not generally lessen the motivation to engage in violence—and may even boost it as a result of the enmity that foreign occupation typically engenders and of the injustice and excesses of war.”

Ray Williams, Psychology Today says:

“We need to pause and reflect on what can be the core causes for current terrorism and a long-term strategy. We need to pull back from a reactionary, violent response. We need to restrain ourselves from retributive justice and focus on restorative justice, one not fueled by vengeance. We need to turn away from hatred and prejudice and focus on compassion and addressing the core causes that attract young people–particularly young men–to become terrorists. And at the same time, we need to put in place adequate security measures to protect citizens in the west, so they can live without fear”

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