Parenting, Teen Mental Health

24 May, 2017

Answering children’s questions about the Manchester Terrorist Attack

It can be difficult to have our children avoid seeing upsetting images or stories of worldwide news stories, including acts of terrorism. How do we help answer their questions about these?

It can be difficult to have our children avoid seeing upsetting images or stories of worldwide news stories, including acts of terrorism. How do we help answer their questions about these?

Dr Colman Noctor, child psychotherapist with St Patrick's Mental Health Services, explores.

"How do I explain to my children when they ask me questions about the recent events at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester?".

The reality is that, because modern-day media is everywhere, it is almost impossible to avoid seeing upsetting images or stories of this worldwide news story. Although we would hope that the innocent ears of our children would not be exposed to these horrific details, it can sometimes be impossible to shield them from it. Also, given the fact that children died in the bombing and they were attending an event that was primarily for a child audience, makes the closeness of the tragedy all the more real.

There is much debate as to whether children should be told about these types of events at all and whether discussing these issues is inappropriate for them. I really value the innocence of childhood and I am someone who believes that this needs to be protected wherever possible. However, this is becoming more and more difficult in the contemporary world of multimedia exposure. When I think about this, I fear that, when small children are exposed to snippets of these stories, they will begin to make up their own minds about the reality of this atrocity. This could be a confusing experience for children, especially if there is no sensible adult voice mediating it for them.

In most cases, where children’s minds are ‘left to their own devices’ to fill the gaps in a story, their natural inclination can be to develop a narrative of fantasy around an event, which can be both dramatic and sometimes terrifying for them. Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that, if it is impossible to shield our children from this upsetting material, then we must intervene and mediate the global hysteria that is both understandable but also possibly very confusing and unsettling for them.

It’s important to remember that gaining an understanding of the motivations for the atrocity in Manchester is really difficult for even grown-ups to comprehend. As adults we try to intellectualise these events in order to make sense of them. We invest a careful amount of emotionality so as to make it feel real to us, but we often turn away from the imagery when we feel ourselves getting overwhelmed so as to regulate the experience for ourselves. This way of protecting ourselves by initiating our psychological defences is a core aspect to coping and is a strategy that is often necessary in order for us not to get overwhelmed. These defence mechanisms allow us to detach from the feelings of fear and sadness in order to continue on with our daily lives.

We therefore have developed the capacity to have varying degrees of connectedness to the tragic events but also the capability of disconnecting from it too. Children have not yet developed this capacity to moderate their engagement with traumatic material, and so often either detach from it altogether or become engulfed by it.

Terrorism is in itself a difficult concept to rationalise for any of us and therefore it can remain outside of our capacity for understanding. We just know that it feels wrong that innocent people were murdered for reasons that are completely detached from our understanding of morality, and so we cope by labelling these individuals as ‘crazy’ and therefore different and/or we engage in a form of counter-activism, like declaring ‘war’ on the perpetrators, closing borders or engaging in outpourings of gestures which reassure ourselves that we are ‘different’.

So given this is so difficult for us as fully adjusted adults to manage, how on earth will children make sense of it?

Children of all ages are exposed to the media whether that is radio, television or social media. They are likely to pick up bits of these news stories here and there and perhaps be curious about them. If this curiosity is brought to their peer group or the internet for verification, they may well get a series of inaccurate responses which will prove only to confuse them more.

So how do we manage it?

Unfortunately there is no one easy way of discussing or explaining terrorism to your child. Therefore, we must consider a menu of options of response which might help, depending on the individual variables in the child.

The first thing to realise is that every child is different and a lot depends on their age, temperament and robustness. Gauging these aspects of the child will guide and determine what approach you will take.

If your child is of a hypersensitive nature, then perhaps a ‘less is more’ philosophy is best when it comes to answering any questions about these distressing events. As parents, we know our children best and therefore we are best placed to skilfully edit information and drip feed it to them in a way that they can manage. The challenge here is to give the child enough information to counteract the possibility of distressing fantasies and allow them to feel trusted with this information. However, it is essential for them not to feel overwhelmed, so the details and explanations need to be carefully moderated. The other balance that you are trying to achieve is to develop a social conscience in your child where they feel empathy for other people, but not to the extent that they feel overburdened with a sense of responsibility or fear for their own safety.

It is my view that pre-school children do not need to know any of the specific details of what happened at the concert. Pre-school age is an important time in terms of feeling safe in order to develop and learn. We can see this in how they sometimes struggle to manage short periods of parental absence and therefore there is no value in adding any more concern. They should be shielded from this media exposure and parents need to make sure that this happens. It is more acceptable to be creative with the truth when communicating with this age group, because sometimes reality is far too difficult for them to comprehend.

For children in early primary school years (first class to fourth class), they may well have heard stories and ask questions about the events they witnessed in the media. As parents, we need to encourage these questions and try to answer them as best we can and as reassuringly as possible. The reality may be that these accounts will cause the child to be upset or feel upset for the people of Manchester, but this is an upsetting event which has affected people of all ages across the globe - therefore, maybe a proportionate amount of upset in this instance is okay?

So when telling a young child about these events, what should we bear in mind?

The first thing is language. Parents must keep the language and content appropriate for the child’s age and temperament. So avoid overwhelming them with information they cannot understand or using words that are inflated or overly dramatic. It is worth bearing in mind that the permanency of death is rarely understood by any child before the age of six years old and so they are unable to understand the meaning of events like these. Perhaps at this age, the child is told that someone got very angry and did some very bad things and some people were hurt and others were very badly hurt, but that the men that did this were caught and are no longer at large. It is important to show examples of how the people of the world have united behind the people of Manchester to help and support them.

In these situations, I would suggest avoiding the conversations about the ongoing risk or the likelihood of an attack here in Ireland, as this will only make the child feel more anxious. I have seen examples over the years where someone has died and the child is told that they have ‘gone to sleep forever’, the result being that the child develops a fear of going asleep and experiences months of sleep problems. In recounting the stories we need to be careful not to explain these events in ways that mean that the child leaves the conversation feeling that something might happen to them.

In cases such as this, it is often advised to avoid using phrases like "bad people’" but rather refer to people "doing bad things". The notion that purely bad people exist may cause the child to question the people that they understand to be bad and feel a sense of impending fear that these bad people will do something will happen to them.

In the case of primary school-aged children I would avoid getting into the political motivations for the act. I think these details are beyond their comprehension and perhaps unnecessary. It may be useful to explain that some people feel very strongly about something that they believe and they feel that others need to feel the same. However, it is important to reiterate that we all need to tolerate people having different views or opinions than us and that we should not force people to believe what we believe.

In the case of teenagers, they may well be able to understand some of the religious or political motivations for why these people did what they did, but, again, I would focus on answering their questions and clarifying any myths and misunderstandings rather than over-burdening them with details that are distressing and incomprehensible. Many teens may be distressed because they can identify with the victims of the tragedy, and this is ok. Support them in their grief and listen to their emotional response to the event. Acknowledge the painfulness and offer them emotional support if they require it.

The most important element of these discussions is to reinforce their sense of safety. Although there is no guarantee that we are immune to these sorts of attacks in Ireland, we need to not let our children believe that something similar happening here is a foregone conclusion. We need to explain that we feel for the people of Manchester and we would like to communicate that to them, but that, here in Ireland, thankfully, we are all safe and there is no reason to believe that this will change. We need to use the past as a predictor of the future and make it clear to children that such attacks have never happened here and, therefore, are extremely unlikely to occur here in the future. Although this is not an unquestionable verifiable fact, the feeling of safety for a child outweighs the need to be pedantically truthful in this instance.

Another area of focus that the conversation should focus on is to bring to the child’s attention the mass support from around the world for the people of Manchester, the bravery and courage of the emergency services on the night, and the outpouring of support of people to the people affected on the night. Perhaps show them the imagery from the different cities around the world and the way in which many of the world’s recognisable icons were lit up and the colours of red, white and blue in support of the British people - maybe even examples of people who were involved in the rescue and refuge of people who were there on the night in question. These images and stories help us to remember that the world is made up of a far greater majority of good people who want to serve and protect each other, rather than the tiny minority who are invested in destruction. Children need to be aware that there are still very good people in the world who champion peace and safety and that this belief will win out.

Should I bring it up if my child has not asked any questions about it?

Overall, I think parents might begin by asking their children if they are aware of the events in Manchester and what their understanding of these matters might be. Once you have a sense of what they know or don’t know, then you can clarify any misperceptions or misinformation that they may have. If they don’t have any knowledge of it, you can clarify that they can come to ask you questions about it if they do hear something and want to know more.

It seems difficult to be encouraging children to ask questions about something so awful, but I go back to the point that it is better that they get the facts from you then rely on the confusing accounts from the media or their misinformed peers. The most important message that you want to convey as a parent is that you are not afraid of any questions your child may have and they needn’t be afraid to ask.

This goes beyond the issue of what happened last week in Manchester, or indeed any act of terrorism or global atrocity. Being approachable and having an open and honest line of communication between a parent and child where any topic is free to be discussed is a real gift. This freedom of communication is one that forms the basis for meaningful, supportive and quality relationships which are essential for the safe and containing growth of you as a parent and child.

In a world that feels so unsafe and uncertain at the moment, perhaps those open and honest relationships are more important than ever.

Read more on how to support children with difficult topics

Read more on how to support children with difficult topics

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