Shootings & Terror Attacks: Tips for Coping, Advice for Mothers

New York, N.Y. In the wake of so many mass shootings and random terror attacks that have injured such innocent children, mothers have become particularly worried. The fears are sadly warranted, as these tragic events have happened while children are at school, in church, or even just on the street.


Many mothers ask me about what to do. Here’s my advice for the mothers about how to cope.

  • Give extra comfort. Child developmental psychology indicates that when trauma occurs, this is the time to give extra comfort. Spend time especially at night when children’s fears can escalate and lead to nightmares. Tell happy stories. Tuck them in. Give them soft toys to cuddle; these serve as “contact comfort” or in psychological terms, as “transitional objects” to represent you as a nurturing and protective figure.
  • Talk about facts. Since children can be exposed to news about such attacks through social media or from schoolmates, prevent them from spreading myths and fears by talking to them about the events. Ask, “What did you hear about this terrible event?” to find out first what they know. Reassure them that they can be safe. Be an “askable parent”: Be sure to add, “Please talk to me if you have any questions or worries.”
  • Talk about fears. These are escalated when mass shootings target innocent people, and also since “new” weapons of terrorists are common items like knives and vehicles rather than guns or suicide vests, and new targets are “soft” rather than high profile American symbols like the Twin Towers or the Capitol. Best practices in psychology recommend to feel the fear and adjust to a “new normal” to prevent fears from leading to phobias about daily activities. Children can develop school phobia (refusal to go to school) out of fear something may happen to them or to you while they are away. Encourage children to tell you about any fears, but then turn the conversation to happy events, as a psychological technique to recondition positive emotions.
  • Notice changes in behavior. Children manifest reactions often in somatic symptoms, like headaches and stomachaches, especially at early ages when verbal skills are not developed. Often these will subside, especially with techniques like the above. If children act aggressively at school, be sure to talk to them or to school authorities, to prevent deep-seeded problems or anyone getting hurt. If any of these issues persist, seek professional help.
  • Be conscious of your emotions. Don’t display them to children so they do not transfer to them. Children pick up on and copy parent’s emotions. Don’t obsess about thoughts that these attacks could happen to you.
  • Direct your anger where it belongs. Get mad at the shooters or terrorists to avoid the typical psychological tendency to project aggression at others, like at your children for small transgressions like leaving their toys in disarray or not finishing their homework.
  • Uncover associations to your past. Publicized victimizations can trigger repressed memories of times you were a victim or mistreated, even decades ago, as outlined in a report in the American Psychologist. Process old experiences and separate them from the present.
  • Notice your prejudices. Children often learn about prejudice from their parents. Examine your own views about “the other.” These can be triggered by specifics of a perpetrator’s profile, whether it comes from reports about a shooter having mental problems, or a terrorist being identified as a religious extremist. Be kind to whoever the “other” is to you.
  • Accept reality. You cannot be a magician to protect your children. There is no absolute safety or perfect protection for you and them. Indeed, churchgoing and afternoon strolls should be safe. Officials wisely advise, “Be vigilant” and, “If you see something, say something.” Measurement of the psychological principle of “locus of control” shows that even people who feel “captain of their fate” may accept that destiny plays a role; after all, you can simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Teach your children to be cautious but not hyper-vigilant. Also, reassure them to trust authorities, since they have averted some threats.
  • Educate yourself. Learn about mass shooters, terrorists and terrorism. Be prepared to answer your child’s questions about such evil people. Knowledge reduces fear. Such individuals are different types with varied motivations. Don’t generalize that all are mentally disturbed, that can only lead to stigma against mental illness. Psychopathy and narcissism are common dynamics. With regard to terrorism, educate yourself about the ideology of radical extremism, foreign fighters, “lone wolves” and abusive use of the internet. These aspects are outlined in the newly released book, A New Counter-Terrorism Strategy: Why the World Failed to Stop Al-Qaeda And ISIL/ISIS And How To Defeat Terrorists Now (ABC-CLIO, 2017) by former Ambassador of Iraq to the UN, Hamid Al-Bayati. Older methods of terrorism used WMDs — weapons of mass destruction — but newer tactics use “Weapons of Mass Psychological Destruction” that aim to erode our emotions, as explained by psychologist Dr. Larry James in his book with that title.
  • Get active. Action reduces anxiety and increases a sense of control. Encourage schools to educate youth about such events, perpetrators, and violence, and to hold memorials when appropriate. Put pressure on congressional leaders to prioritize public safety, and on social media companies to prevent abuse of technology that encourages violence. Participate in a local media campaign.
  • Talk to kids about the meaning of life. Don’t shy away from profound questions that children may ask, like about life. Know for yourself that it’s normal to have an existential crisis about the purpose of life, but don’t lose faith. Violent perpetrators don’t win when you get on with your life, going to church, and as New Yorkers did celebrating Halloween and enjoying the city’s weekend marathon. This is an opportunity to teach them about being resilient, which means when you are knocked down, get back up. Violence is tragic but not a reason to give up on life, hope and believing in others.

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About Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D.: Dr Judy Speaks

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Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D.: Dr Judy Speaks
Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D., known as "Dr Judy" for her wise "LovePhones" advice on radio, and on TV, print and internet. Follow Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D. on Twitter:, instagram DrJudyK and at Google her name on amazon for her many books on personal and international relationships.

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