How To Talk To Kids About Terrorism

During times of crisis people reveal who they really are. We are living through such a crisis right now as terrorism spreads around the world, and we see the whole spectrum of responses – from empathy and kindness to hatred and fear. Where do we fall on this spectrum? Our kids are looking to us to make sense of it all.


A tiny minority of Muslims would identify themselves as radical jihadists, and yet Muslims around the world and in our own communities are being attacked or discriminated against just because they look like the terrorists shown on TV.

In school, our kids learn about people who helped slaves in the last century, who helped Jews escape the Nazis, who marched in the civil rights movement. We honor people who were on the right side of history. We shake our heads in disgust at those who were cruel and close-minded. We are living in a time when we are being asked to make similar choices. What side of history will we be on? Will we hold on to our principles of empathy and kindness or will we succumb to the fear of the mob?

Compare terrorism to something kids understand – bullying

Taping a fight.

Kids experience their own version of low-level terrorism. It’s called bullying. What is bullying? The use of fear and intimidation to gain power and control. This turns out to be a good definition of terrorism. To talk to kids about terrorism we could talk about it as bullying on a global scale. The world is like a giant schoolyard, and the terrorists are like the bullies.

There are a couple of things we know about bullies that are also true of terrorists. If we remind our kids and ourselves of these things, the bully is no longer so scary.

  • They have suffered in some way
  • They feel a lack of power and control in their lives
  • They try to make themselves feel stronger by making others feel weaker
  • The bully is the weakest kid in the schoolyard
  • The bully wins when all the other kids live in fear
  • The bully wins when the kids who see it don’t say or do anything

We need to respond to terrorism the same way we respond to bullying. We can punish the bully, but we need to understand the bully as well. We need to look at the causes. Where are all these bullies coming from? If we had this many bullies in a schoolyard doing this much damage, we wouldn’t just keep sending them all to the office. We wouldn’t equip all the kids in the schoolyard with weapons to fight back. We wouldn’t punish all the kids who look like the bully. We would start to ask deeper questions. We would start listening to them. We probably should have started doing that long ago.

Responses to terrorism

  • Justice for those who are oppressed thereby alleviating the situations in the world that create terrorists
  • Peace-making through words as a solution to conflict in the form of multi-lateral negotiations
  • Love of one’s neighbor no matter what their race, creed or gender
  • Empathy and respect – even for bullies

What do adults tell kids to do about bullying? Use your words not your fists. We need to take our own advice. Bombs are not the answer. Every time a bomb is dropped in the Middle East, it creates a hundred new terrorists.

What can I say to my child about the Muslim religion?

The Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths all descend from one common ancestor – Abraham –  who lived around 4,000 years ago. All three religions see Abraham as the first person to establish a relationship with Yahweh, God or Allah – three names for the same “person.”

Use the metaphor of a tree


If we think of it as a family tree, it started with the Jews (who believed that God made a special covenant with Abraham), then a new branch formed from that central trunk called Christians (who believed that Jesus was the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for) and then another branch grew from the same central trunk called Muslims (who believed that Mohammed was the last in a line of great prophets that included Abraham and Jesus). These are the three great monotheistic religions (those who believe in one God) in the world today. They are all branches of the same tree. They have their roots in the same earth, and the branches are reaching for the light of the same sun.

All three groups are seeking truth. All three groups preach the power of love, peace and justice. Throughout history there have been people who have used all three of these beautiful religions to justify violent actions, and that is happening again right now.

We can talk to our kids about terrorism by comparing it to bullying. We can also model for our kids a way of dealing with bullies – showing empathy and not letting emotions rule over reason. If we don’t do these things, we run two risks – the risk of letting the bully win and the risk of becoming bullies ourselves.