Facing Fears: Teaching Students About Terrorism, Disaster and War

Serious and complex topics, such as natural disasters, war and terrorism are often difficult for parents and teachers to discuss with children and teens. Nonetheless, since children are bombarded daily with images of tragic events, a conversation with a trusted adult is necessary if young people are to properly understand their world. Teachers and parents taking on this difficult task will benefit from the resources identified in this guide.

Affects of Disasters on Children
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), children deal with disaster better when their parents remain calm and honestly acknowledge any danger.

Responses to disaster vary according to a child’s age. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) notes that adolescents may suffer from disruptions in sleep and eating patterns, and may become more argumentative and agitated, and less attentive. NASP also notes that children between ages five and 11 may become aggressive, irritable, clingy, less attentive, may suffer from nightmares and may even withdraw from friends, and that younger children will share these traits, as well as possibly regress to bedwetting and thumb sucking.

Depending on the severity of the shock, some children develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the American Psychological Association, symptoms of the disorder in children include reliving the traumatic event, nightmares, and aggression. PTSD is so common among children who have experienced a disaster that in New York City shortly after 9/11, about 75,000 school children were known to be suffering from PTSD.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that children will respond to a disaster in stages. During the irst stage children will be in disbelief and denial, and frightened. Depending on whether or not a loved one was harmed, the child will also experience either grief or relief. For the second stage, which begins anytime from a few days to several weeks after the disaster, children will then show the symptoms identified above for particular age groups.

Guidelines for Speaking with Children About Disasters
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends the following for discussing disasters with children of all ages.

Tips for All Ages

  • Children need to “get it out.” Encourage them to talk about their experience and also express their feelings by drawing or writing. Reassure children that it is ok to be sad, upset or anxious.
  • Demonstrate caring actions and encourage children to help, as well. Writing letters to those who are hurt, collecting donations and volunteering with the child, will show her that good things can happen after bad.
  • Adults should avoid expressing extremely strong or violent emotions in front of children, but rather should model good behaviors such as healthy eating, managing stress and getting sufficient sleep.

Tips for Children Under Five

  • Focus on the child, not the trauma.
  • Cuddle frequently.
  • Speak often and gently to the child, about whatever they bring up.
  • Reassure them they are loved, and that you will take care of them.

  • Encourage discussion of their worries and what they think might help them feel better.
  • Be present and available as much as possible.
  • Hug when it seems appropriate.
  • Return to normal everyday routines and activities.
  • Encourage them to spend time with friends.

A variety of resources are available for teachers and parents to help start these discussions. Prepare for the discussion with The 130 Questions Children Ask about War and Terrorists by S. Arterburn and D.A. Stoop (2002).

Healthy provides a series of audio broadcasts with advice on how to speak with children about death, disasters, crises and financial difficulties.

The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement has a collection of materials to help parents, schools and teachers address crisis, loss and grief.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has a variety of resources for parents, as well as teachers.

Teachers can find lesson plans on difficult topics including Hurricane Sandy, terrorism and war from the New York Times’ Learning Network.

A number of lesson plans on war focus on its impact on children, particularly through exploration of the child soldier phenomenon. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) offers lessons for primary and secondary students focused on the Kony 2012 campaign, and PBS’ News Hour Extra explores the use of child soldiers in a variety of conflicts. PBS’ Frontline also provides classroom activities that may be helpful, such as this discussion on terrorism.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers 10 lessons, a handful of online exhibitions, activities and a helpful list of common student questions about the Holocaust.

Parents and teachers should not underestimate the ability of kids and teens to grasp serious and complex issues. By embracing their curiosity with unique resources, adults can help children and teens understand and cope with disasters, war and terrorism. Here are some excellent suggestions:

Best Media for Young People


  • 10,000 Days of Thunder by Philip Caputo (2005) recounts the Vietnam War for young readers.
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947) is the classic story of a Jewish family’s experience during the Nazi occupation of Holland, told from the point-of-view of a 13 year old girl.
  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895) tells the story of Henry Fleming’s experience during the American Civil War.


  • The Great Escape(1963) (unrated, but equivalent to PG or PG-13) starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and a host of others allows families and classes to explore the major issues and themes of World War II while enjoying the story of the good guys escaping from a German POW camp.
  • Teachers and parents can facilitate a discussion of war and racism with the film Glory (1989) (PG), starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington.
  • War Horse (2011) (PG-13), directed by Stephen Spielberg, cleverly weaves a survey of the history of World War I into the story of a beautiful horse and his devoted owner.

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