How to talk to your children about ‘an attack on children’

Experts advise on how to help a child understand the Manchester Arena attack

A woman and child leaving the Manchester Arena after the May 23rd attack. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

As the media continues to be dominated by the news of the terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena over the next few days, parents will be wondering how much – if anything – to tell their children, and what they should say to reassure them.

Here, child psychologist Dr David Carey and Irish Times parenting expert, John Sharry, advise on the best approach to helping your children make sense of violent and frightening events.

How should you talk to your children about what happened in Manchester?

First, ask yourself if you need to talk to them at all. Children from preschool age to around 7 should be protected from the news as far as possible.

“The first principle is that if children are quite young, you should try to protect them if you can from this news altogether. Sometimes young children are over-exposed to this kind of event and it can leave them feeling frightened,” says Sharry.


For slightly older children, aged from around 7 to around 11, the best approach is stick to the facts and to listen to their worries or thoughts on it. Don’t just dismiss their fears. Tailor the information and your response to their questions according to what they already know and their maturity level.

Carey advises keeping to the facts. “Tell them something really dangerous happened in Manchester, and many people were hurt and injured, and we don’t know all the information yet. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say, and there may never be a right answer.”

“You might just say that it was a terrible tragedy, an awful thing that happened,” says Sharry.

Older preteens and teenagers will pick up the news by themselves in their media-saturated world. You can have a more mature discussion with them, and delve into the complexities and subtleties around extremism, terrorism, violence and our response to it.

“Talk to them more as an equal. That can be an important step into building a more adult relationship with them,” says Sharry.

What message should you focus on giving your children? 

Reassurance should be at the heart of your discussion. "For the average child, what do they want to know? They want to know whether they're safe or not. And I think we just need to reassure them that here in Ireland, we're very safe and that our job as parents is to keep them safe," says Carey.

Answer their questions honestly – but realistically, and in a way that’s appropriate for their age. “Say that nobody knows exactly why these things happen, but they’re very unlikely to happen overall. Try to minimise the risk in their minds,” says Sharry.

Particularly bright children “will read more deeply into these things and will want more of the facts, and for those children you can give it to them as you feel it’s appropriate,” says Carey.

How do you answer the question of “why”? Is it helpful to discuss it in the context of “bad guys”? 

“With young children, they divide the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, so it’s not inappropriate to use language like that to help them understand. You can talk about some people who are bad or who are very destructive – I think you can use very simple language like that with young children, because that’s how they think about the world,” says Sharry.

However, do try to avoid putting vivid images of “the bad guys” into their minds, Carey says. “Don’t go down the road of talking about Isis and Islamic state and those kind of things. I’d keep it simple, keep it succinct, reassure your child that they’re safe and they you’ll look after them.”

With older children and teenagers, again, you can have a more nuanced discussion. “Listen to their point of view and see what they think. Debate the issue with them. Teenagers and even pre-teens appreciate that. You can discuss bigger issues, like how important safety is, and how important life is, what are the circumstances in the world that might cause these things to happen,” Sharry says.

What should parents say to children who come home from school this afternoon having heard about an attack “directly targeting children”?  

That kind of language can be very upsetting to children, says Carey. “I heard that this morning on the radio. I turned it off – and I didn’t even have children in the car. It’s too much to say it was an attack ‘directly targeting children’.

“If they come home from school today asking these kind of questions, the best answer is the truthful one. Say something like, ‘We really don’t know, but something horrible happened, and people were hurt and killed. My job as your parent, and the government’s job, is to keep everybody safe.’”

Sharry says that: “If that’s what they’re hearing in school, let them talk about what they heard. Then say that may be some people’s opinion of what happened, but your view is that this was a terrible thing carried out by somebody who wasn’t thinking about other people or the consequences at all.”

How can parents reassure very sensitive children?  

Sensitive children are likely to be more deeply affected by this kind of news, says Sharry. “I work with children who, when they hear bad news, get very anxious about it,” he says.

“You might get a child who when they hear of a car crash, immediately worry about it happening to them or their parents.”

With those children, a more specialised response is required. “Overall, your goal here is to help them think it out, listen to their feelings, help them rationalise it, and challenge it with logic, or by talking about whether you should let anxiety rule your life.  The big thing is to engage their rational mind about the worry, and ask is the worry reasonable?”

Should you still allow them to go to a concert in the aftermath of Manchester?  

“These are big adult decisions you have to make as a family. You have to weigh up the likelihood of a concert being targeted. It’s still relatively low at the moment. You have to think rationally about it as a family and talk it through,” says Sharry.

“Sit down with them to think through the risks and dangers. People are often unrealistic about real dangers and put undue emphasis on more remote dangers. Car accidents, alcohol and street violence are a far bigger risk to teenagers than the threat of a terrorist attack.”

What happens if they see something on the internet? 

“The reality is it’s never great for young kids to have access to the internet without parental supervision. You get 10- or 11-year-olds with full access to the internet in their bedroom, and when there’s an event like this, they’re definitely going to come across things they shouldn’t be seeing,” says Sharry.

He points out that this is something parents should be vigilant about every day – not just in the aftermath of a violent incident.

Remember that children are often much more resilient than parents give them credit for

“The vast majority – 99 per cent – of all children are incredibly resilient,” says Carey.

“They tend to be more distressed by adults talking about these things and making needless attempts to reassure them, than they are by the event itself. These kind of events generally don’t cause lasting damage to them.”

Read more from John Sharry on helping children to cope with bad news stories: