The impact of violence and terrorism on pupils

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
Photo: iStock

Images of death and violence are commonly relayed by the media and can have long-lasting effects on young people. Dr Stephanie Thornton gives an overview of the possible impact, suggestions on reducing fear and anxiety, and some signs to look out for

Shoppers are mown down in a Mall in Kenya. A soldier is beheaded in a London street. Suicide bombers, or men with guns attack markets, hotels, offices – even schools – all round the world.

Horrific images of death and destruction flood the media; the blackened wreckage, the scattered schoolbags, the bloodstains, the shattered survivors, the shocked and grieving.

What do the young make of this terrifying world? What impact does it have on them? Some in our classrooms, refugees from violent places, have directly experienced such things. More will have relatives in badly affected countries. And all of our young will see the shocking reports in the media.

Many who directly experience such terror will suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Untreated, that can damage emotional, personal and cognitive development (1).

Persistent high levels of stress may permanently “reset” a child’s ability to cope with stress. It is beyond the scope of any school to provide the expert support such individuals require – but schools have a vital role to play in identifying where such help is needed.

Too often, the depths of trauma go unnoticed in the young, so no professional help is offered. Part of the problem is that the signs of severe stress, even PTSD, aren’t always immediately obvious. Such signs include poor sleep, tiredness, poor concentration, depression, irritability or aggression, anxiety and general nervousness.

Such things are, sadly, fairly common in our pupils, and may have many causes. But if those troubled in these ways have come from places at war or beset by terrorism it is worth, in liaison with the family, assessing the possibility of post-traumatic stress, and accessing the appropriate expert help.

For the majority of pupils, experience of terror and war is through reports in the media. There has been little research in this area, but what there is shows that even such indirect exposure can trigger severe anxiety, sometimes amounting to PTSD, in children and adolescents.

Much of the data comes from studies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in America (2). Parental reports suggest that 60 per cent of school-age children in New York showed severe anxiety following the attacks, though they were not directly affected.

More formal assessments showed that more than 28 per cent had at least one diagnosable anxiety disorder six months after the event (agoraphobia, separation anxiety or PTSD for example).

Though those in New York were worst affected, children and teenagers living far away were not immune: parental reports suggest that even in Seattle, on the far side of the country, 35 per cent of young people were anxious after 9/11. Formal studies suggest eight per cent had symptoms amounting to PTSD a month after the event.

PTSD is a severe problem that obviously needs expert intervention. But it is a mistake to think that lesser degrees of stress can safely be left to fade with time. Some will, as life returns to normal. But some won’t.

The anxiety triggered by reports of terror can induce mental health problems that may easily become chronic, affecting development in profound ways. So it is worth taking a pro-active approach when the media covers frightening events: assessing how much the young are likely to be affected, both collectively and individually, and addressing the situation accordingly (3).

Aspects of the reportage itself shape how badly the young are likely to be affected. The more vivid and dramatic the reporting, the stronger the impact. And the more extensive and intense the media coverage, the bigger the effects: “wall-to-wall” coverage makes a deep impression.

Details of the event, too, affect how the young are likely to react: the closer to home, the more personal the threat seems, and the greater the fear it evokes.

That closeness may be geographic – an attack in your own town or area, or in a place where you have family or friends, is more disturbing than one at the other end of the country, which is itself worse than something in a faraway land with which you have no connection. But the personal relevance of the event is also crucial: an attack on a school, wherever it may be in the world, hits closer to home for the young than an attack on an office.

The character and personal circumstances of the individual affect how he or she is likely to react. Children and teenagers who were emotionally robust before the event are likely to cope better than those who were already fragile or off-balance in some way.

Equally, those living in secure and happy circumstances are likely to cope better than those already dealing with stress either at home or in school. There is also the question of the meaning the young give to events. Some social groups, such as minority groups, may feel more threatened than others.

What can we do to help, when the media is flooded with dramatic accounts of horror? The key thing is to be alert to the risk that the pupils in your charge may be anxious and distressed – while not over-reacting yourself.
Adult reactions to events offer the young both a signal as to how dangerous a situation really is, and a role-model for reacting.

The more traumatised the adult world seems to be, the more real the threat will seem to the young and the more panic will seem like a reasonable reaction. There are few situations where calm is not the best response. Your composure, and the normality of calmly following familiar routines through the day can do much to reduce anxiety in teenagers and young children alike.

Sometimes, particularly if an event is far away and scantily reported for example, your composure may be all that is required to calm fears. But keep an eye out: is there evidence of a rise in anxiety in the groups or individuals in your care? If so, it is better addressed than ignored. Denial helps no-one. It leaves the young to cope alone; it may undermine a teenager’s confidence in adult judgement.

Ideally, we would help the young to express their fears and feelings in the aftermath of terror, exploring the situation and putting the dangers into perspective. That needs sensitivity with any age group, and must be age-appropriate.

Thirteen-year-olds, for example, can handle the notion that while a terror attack of that kind is possible here, it is not probable. Young children cannot handle that distinction. Sixteen-year-olds might be able to comprehend the complex factors driving such attacks, 13-year-olds probably won’t.

Where children are old enough to do so, sharing fears and reactions with peers can create a supportive solidarity that may do much to defuse individual anxieties. But with those of any age who are particularly stressed, and particularly with younger children, a more individual approach may be better.

Find a quiet moment and ask about their feelings and fears. Simply talking can be an immense relief to someone feeling alone with anxiety – and sometimes, you may be able to allay that fear. Such conversations also offer an opportunity to assess just how anxious this individual is, and to look for signs of anxiety disorders including PTSD. If you have any suspicions on that score, it is time to call for expert help (4).

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.


  1. Effects of Terrorism on Children: Psychosocial Biological Understanding, M Basheer Ahmed (2007):
  2. Mental Health Following Terrorist Attacks, M Whalley & C Brewin (2007), British Journal of Psychiatry:
  3. A useful summary of research findings and recommendations from the American Psychological Association:
  4. Free online resources for recognising anxiety and other disorders include or and


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