• Susie Wilson

After a Terrorist Attack talking to children about community shootings.

"This week my daughter Bianca, shared that she had a conversation with her beautiful 5-year-old son Brody, my grandson, about the atrocious shooting attack in Christchurch. I really felt sad that Bianca had to have this conversation with Brody, in the fact that he was feeling unsettled and scared. Which prompted me to write this article for all parents".


History has shown that human resilience wins over terror New Zealand comes together in powerful symbol of unity against terror.

New Zealand fell silent today, collectively honouring those gunned down a week ago at two mosques in Christchurch. From Auckland to Wellington; in Hamilton, Tauranga and many other places, including of course in Christchurch, thousands gathered for Salāt al-Jumu'ah, the Friday congregational prayer - the most important service of the week in the Islamic tradition.

In some places, non-Muslims formed a protective outer layer for the Muslims gathered, many of whom wore white, the traditional colour of peace. In Hagley Park in Christchurch, opposite the still closed al-Noor mosque, the Imam who survived the shooting there gave the sermon.

As a human race, we are resilient. We can become broken, beaten, pushed, bombed and shot, yet still manage to survive physically, emotionally and mentally. The recent, atrocious terrorist attack in Christchurch left the public fearful, threatened and with endless questions of “why?”

The victims and survivors of the terrorist attacks are not the only individuals affected, but so are their family members, loved ones and the general public who are exposed to the violent and gruesome images broadcasted on news outlets.

You don’t know when the next drop will come. This is a variation of psychological and actual war. It is plugged into the most powerful form of our memory, our emotionally related memory, located mainly in the hippocampus, which sits next to and interacts with the amygdala. As studies have shown with Israeli fighter pilots, each encounter results in greater shrinkage of the hippocampal volume. Yes, it is invisible to our eyes, but it (stress) chips away at our health and longevity. We shall overcome is a song, but rather, we accommodate to progressive disability.

When innocent people are killed, the ripple effect is felt around the world. This psychological effect of terrorism has become a hot topic since 9/11. With the devastating situation that occurred a week ago in Christchurch, New Zealand, as a human race, it is only natural to be fearful.

The role of fear

Fear is an emotion that we experience after the brain processes a threatening stimulus through the amygdala and releases stress hormones, a process known as the “fight or flight” response.

The amygdala is a small almond-shaped structure located in the brain’s temporal lobe that works to process arousal, emotional stimulation and threatening signs. It works directly with the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the release of stress hormones such as norepinephrine and cortisol in response to any type of alarming stimuli. These stress hormones allow the body to prepare for escape in such threatening situations.

Fear is the emotional result after this process has begun. When fear becomes prolonged to the point that it consumes an individual’s mind and daily life, it becomes pathological. Although the majority of victims directly affected by terrorist attacks develop a sense of fear, many are able to cope and move on, whereas a few develop sufficient symptoms to fulfil the diagnostic criteria for acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Acute stress disorder

Acute stress disorder is a constellation of at least nine symptoms from different categories — including intrusion, negative mood, dissociation, arousal and avoidance — which occur at least for three days and last up to one month after an individual experiences a traumatic event such as physical violence or a terror attack, or learns that these traumatic events occurred to a loved one. These events must affect an individual to the extent that they cause impairment in at least one area of functioning such as social or occupational.

Acute stress disorder is different from PTSD in that it only lasts up to one month, whereas PTSD is diagnosed after having a month of symptoms that include the persistent re-experiencing of the traumatic events with flashbacks and/or nightmares.

Resilience wins

Research reveals that, even though acute stress disorder and PTSD do occur for some individuals after a terrorist attack, humans are in fact resilient. As a result, even though terrorist attacks are living nightmares for those who experience them, survivors do move on with their lives.

Also surprising is that the majority of individuals affected by terrorist attacks are able to overcome fear and the negative connotations associated with these acts of violence. Research even shows that individuals come together as a community to form a stronger bond after a terrorist attack occurs. This can be seen by communities holding a memorial or vigil, or the global reaction to the bombing in Paris when millions of Facebook users changed their profile picture to include the French flag. These attacks can bolster a sense of closer ties within neighbourhoods, cities, states, countries and even globally, demonstrating that the human race is indeed resilient.

We live in a terrifying world, but in one that has multiple silver linings. Sometimes it is difficult to work through the fear, but it is important to do the best we can, to come together as a community, to express gratitude for the positive things and to look for the silver linings in situations, even in terrorist attacks. After all, history has shown that human resilience wins over terror.


Children and teenagers are better able to cope with upsetting news when they understand more about the event. They need information just as adults do. Begin by asking what they already understand about what happened. They have likely heard about it on TV, on the internet or social media, at school, or from their friends.

However, much of their information may not be accurate. As they explain what they know about the event, you can figure out what it is they don’t already know or understand. Look for misunderstandings or frightening rumours. Tell the truth and do not try to mislead them “for their own good.”

Children and youth of different ages understand and react differently according to their developmental age and unique personal experiences. It is important to remember that we cannot assume that children’s worries are the same as our own. When we listen to children and come to understand their feelings and worries, we can better help them make sense of these experiences and how they affect us all.

The number of details that children will find useful will depend upon their age. The older the child is, the more details will likely be needed to answer their questions and address their concerns. Provide the basic information in simple and direct terms and then ask for questions. Take your cues from children in determining how much information to provide. Older children may wish to discuss the larger implications of the event. Provide reassurance whenever possible. Our government, police, and schools are taking steps to protect us from something like this happening again and to keep us safe. Children often look for reassurance that they are now safe after such graphic reminders of danger and hatred.

Terrorist acts and school and community shootings remind us all that we are never completely safe – but now is the best time to reassure children that they can and should feel safe in their school, in their home, and in their community. While it is useful for children to know enough about what has happened to feel that they understand what has occurred and what they should do, it isn’t helpful for children (or adults) to be exposed to graphic images or information or to continuous or repetitive media coverage. Such images and details are often included in the coverage of the event on television, radio and print media, as well as in social media and elsewhere on the internet. Limit the amount of exposure to media coverage and discussion in social media. In the immediate aftermath of a crisis event, it’s a good time to turn off the television, computers, and smartphones and come together as a family and community for discussion and support.


After a tragic event, we all wonder what we and others could have done to prevent this from happening.

Even when it is obvious that there is nothing children could have done to prevent or minimise the crisis, they may still feel helpless and wish they could have changed what happened. Let children know that this is a common reaction; we all wish that there is something we could have done to prevent this or any tragedy. Instead, suggest that together you can concentrate on what can be done now to help those most directly affected and to promote safety, tolerance and acceptance in our communities.


In some ways, blaming is a way to feel as if you can regain control of uncomfortable feelings and a sense of personal risk.


During these discussions, children may show that they are upset – they may cry, get anxious or cranky, or show you in some other way that they are upset. Remember, it is the events that are upsetting them, not the discussion. Talking about the event will permit them the opportunity to show you how upset they really are. This is the first step in coping with their feelings and adjusting to their new understanding of the world. Pause the conversation periodically so that you can provide support and comfort and ask if they wish to continue the discussion at another time. But it is helpful for children to realize that it is okay to show you when they are upset. Otherwise, they may try to hide their feelings and will then be left to deal with them alone.


When a major crisis of this nature occurs, it is a good idea to bring the topic up with children, no matter how young they are. At first, older children and teenagers may tell you that they don’t want to or need to discuss it. It is generally not a good idea to force them to talk with you, but do keep the door open for them to come back and discuss it later. Be available when they are ready to talk, but let them choose the time. Often children find it easier to talk about what other children are saying or feeling instead of talking about themselves.


This is a question that we all struggle to answer, not only for children but also for ourselves.Especially in difficult times, children may act immaturely. Teenagers may want to spend more time with their peers. Children and teenagers are often very concerned about themselves. When there is a tragic event, they may become even more concerned about what affects them personally. Adults who do not understand this may see this as being selfish or uncaring. It is important to make children feel comfortable in asking questions and expressing their feelings.

Expect children to think more about themselves for the time being. Once they feel reassured that they are being listened to and their needs will be met, they are more likely to be able to start to think about the needs of others.


Once children start to feel safe and understand what is going on, many will want to help. While there may be little that they can do now to help the immediate victims of a particular crisis, there is a lot they can do to help. They can start by taking care of themselves – telling you when they are upset or worried, being honest and open. They can also offer help to other members of their community – their friends and classmates, their teacher, and other adults. Over time, they can think about how they, along with other members of their community, might be able to do something helpful for the victims and survivors.


Often what children and teenagers need most is to have someone they trust listen to their questions, accept their feelings, and be there for them. Don’t worry about knowing the perfect thing to say – there is no answer that will make everything okay. Listen to their concerns and thoughts, answer their questions with simple, direct and honest responses, and provide appropriate reassurance and support. While we would all want to keep children from ever having to hear about something like this, reality does not allow this. Being silent on the issue won’t protect them from what happened, but only prevent them from understanding and coping with it. Remember that answers and reassurance should be at the level of the child’s understanding.

Give family and loved ones an extra hug today.