Terrorism threatens a society by instilling fear and helplessness in its citizens. It seeks to hold a society or government hostage by fear of destruction and harm.

When terrorist acts occur, people generally look for ways to cope with the acute stress and trauma. Terrorism evokes a fundamental fear of helplessness. The violent actions are random, unprovoked, and intentional, and often are targeted at defenseless citizens. Trying to cope with the irrational information that is beyond normal comprehension can set off a chain of psychological events culminating in feelings of fear, helplessness, vulnerability, and grief.

Xenophobia -- fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners -- can be heightened under a terrorist threat and can become a social and psychological danger. The fear generated by terrorism can be exacerbated by a population's diversity if there is distrust between groups, categories and classification of citizens. People need to recognize that diversity in a population is often an opportunity for unity and strength. There are members of our diverse society who have experienced past terrorist incidents. The knowledge and experience they have gained from surviving and coping with these incidents can make them a valuable resource on how to cope and how to offer assistance to others.

Who Is Affected?

After a terrorist attack, many people are impacted. People who have experienced the trauma often fall into the following categories:

  • Survivors of past traumatic events (e.g. refugees of wars, terrorism, or torture, and survivors of domestic violence, child abuse, or street crime). These individuals may have a heightened sense of vulnerability.
  • People who personally witnessed or were victims of the terrorist attack.
  • People who experience traumatization from learning of relatives, friends and acquaintances that were subject to the violence or from exposure to repeated media accounts of the trauma.

What You May Experience Following a Terrorist Attack

People who have experienced or witnessed a terrorist attack may go into a state of acute stress reaction. You may feel one or all of these symptoms:

  • Recurring thoughts of the incident
  • Becoming afraid of everything, not leaving the house, or isolating yourself
  • Stopping usual functioning, no longer maintaining daily routines
  • Survivor guilt -- "Why did I survive? I should have done something more."
  • Tremendous sense of loss
  • Reluctance to express your feelings, losing a sense of control over your life

Coping with the Trauma

  1. Identify the feelings that you may be experiencing. Understand that your feelings are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
  2. Remember that you have overcome adversity and trauma in the past. Try to remember what you did that helped you overcome the fear and helplessness in that situation.
  3. Talk to others about your fears. It's okay to ask for help. Workplaces may convene small groups with an EAP counselor or other mental health counselor so people can share feelings.
  4. Make efforts to maintain your usual routine.
  5. Think positively. Realize that things will get better. Be realistic about the time it takes to feel better.
  6. Recognize that the nature of terrorist attacks creates fear and uncertainty about the future. Continue to do the things in your life that you enjoy. Don't get preoccupied with the things you cannot control to the extent that they prevent you from living your normal life.
  7. Know the actions our government is taking to combat terrorism and restore safety and security. Recognize that trained officials throughout the country are mobilized to prevent, prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks.
  8. Limit exposure to media coverage.

Helping Children Cope

  • Encourage children to say how they are feeling about the event.
  • Ask children what they have seen, heard or experienced.
  • Assure children that their parents are taking care of them and will continue to help them deal with anything that makes them feel afraid.
  • Help children recognize when they have shown courage in meeting a new scary situation and accomplished a goal despite hardship or barriers. Instill a sense of empowerment.
  • Let children know that institutions of democracy are still in place and our government is intact. (It can also be helpful for adults to realize this.)
  • Know that it is possible for children to experience vicariously the traumatization from the terrorist attack (e.g. watching TV coverage, overhearing adult conversations).


Listen very carefully to what your child is asking or talking about. Usually, their fears are specific. Clarify his or her concern before trying to answer.


Answer questions that have not been asked. Do not overload the child with information they may not be able to process at this time. This can be very confusing for a child.


Answer questions calmly. Your child will reflect your mood and your visible emotions.


As much as possible; do not show your child anger or other strong negative emotions about the incident. Your child will expect you to be sad, and it's OK to share that.


Call on others to give you answers if you are not comfortable with your immediate answer. For instance, children may ask why God allowed such a thing to happen. Contact a spiritual advisor and ask for an appropriate response.


Use phrases like "the good die young" that can lead to questions like "haven't I been good?" or "if I'm good will this happen to me?"


Assure your child that the people in charge are doing everything they can to ensure that we will be safe, whether it is in an airplane or a building or just walking down the street.


Make guarantees that such a thing can never happen again. Words like "never" or "always" should be used very carefully because small children trust that this is a promise from you. Don't promise anything that you, personally, cannot deliver.


Explain that we do not know what causes someone to treat us with such violence. Emphasize that we should always try to talk things out with other people instead of resorting to hurting them in some way.


Discuss possible military responses to the event in front of or with a young child.

Please try to limit your child's exposure to media coverage of the event showing scenes of violence. Encourage your child to watch their usual TV programs, especially those on pubic TV.

Feelings and Reactions

Children express their feelings and reactions in different ways. Your acceptance of this will make a difference to how your child recovers from the trauma. This means accepting that some children will react by becoming withdrawn and unable to talk about the event, while others will feel intensely sad and angry at times and at other times will act as if the disaster never happened. Children are often confused about what has happened and about their feelings. However, don't be surprised if some children don't seem to be affected by what they have seen and heard. Not everyone has immediate reactions; some have delayed reactions that show up days, weeks, or even months later, and some may never have a reaction.

Talking About What Happened

  • Listen to and accept children's feelings.
  • Give honest, simple, brief answers to their questions.
  • Make sure they understand your answers and the meaning you intend.
  • Use words or phrases that won't confuse a child or make the world more frightening.
  • Create opportunities for children to talk with each other about what happened and how they are feeling.
  • Give your child an honest explanation if you are feeling so upset you don't want to talk about what happened. You may want to take "time out" and ask a trusted family friend to help.
  • If children keep asking the same question over and over again it is because they are trying to understand; trying to make sense out of the disruption and confusion in their world. Younger children will not understand that death is permanent, so their repeated inquiries are because they expect everything to return to normal.
  • If the child feels guilty, ask him or her to explain what happened. Listen carefully to whether he or she attaches a sense of responsibility to some part of the description. Explain the facts of the situation and emphasize that no one, least of all the child, could have prevented it.
  • Let the school help The child's teacher can be sensitive to changes in the child's behavior and will be able to respond in a helpful way.
  • Even if you feel the world is an unsafe place, you can reassure your child by saying, "The event is over. Now we'll do everything possible to stay safe, and together we can help get things back to normal."
  • Notice when children have questions and want to talk.
  • Be especially loving and supportive; children need you at this time.

If you or your children are having trouble coping with the terrorist attacks, consider seeking help from a psychologist or other mental health professional. There are many ways to feel traumatized by terrorist incidents. Psychologists and other licensed mental health professionals are trained to help people cope and take positive steps toward managing their feelings and behaviors.

Information from the American Psychological Association And The American Red Cross

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Last Updated: June 12, 2002