Parents dealing with how to talk to their children about violent incidents like the attack Monday night in Manchester, England, after Ariana Grande’s concert first need to reassure them that they are safe, psychologists suggest.
The first question children usually ask during violence world events is whether they’re in danger, said Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz, a psychologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
“You need to tell the truth,” Mendlowitz said in a CBC News Facebook Live. “You need to tell it in a way that’s developmentally appropriate.”
We live with uncertainty every day and Monday’s event is unusual, Mendlowitz said.
“If it happened all the time, people wouldn’t be on Twitter so much.”
The instantaneous nature of social media and the fact that we live in a complicated world are part of what’s changed, Mendlowitz said.
“We cannot live our lives in fear,” she stressed.
Rather, Mendlowitz suggested turning the event into something positive, such as :
- Writing letters of support to affected families.
- Collecting donations.
- Talking about what to do if you can’t reach each other by cellphone.
For its part, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement of condolence in response to the Manchester attack that left 22 people dead and dozens wounded — many of them children and young people.
“Pediatricians know far too well that violence can have lasting effects on children, even if they are only learning about it through the media,” the group said, also pointing to resources for families.
3 fundamental questions
Children and teens turn to their parents to help them feel secure and to understand world events in terms they can understand, a bit at a time, experts say.
Dr. Gene Beresin is executive director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist. After last year’s attacks in Brussels and Paris, he noted children need answers to three fundamental questions:
- Am I safe?
- Are you, the people who take care of me, safe?
- How will these events affect my daily life?
Watching violent or upsetting images can be disturbing, especially for young children.
The American Pediatric Academy suggests sharing basic information with children, not graphic details or unnecessary details about tragic circumstances.
For older children who want to watch the news, the academy suggests recording programs first, and then watching them with them. That way, families can stop and pause for discussions as needed.
Parents are also advised to be aware of news and graphic images on social media, and to take steps in advance to talk to children about what they might see or hear.
Answer kids’ questions honestly, experts say
Showing children how people pull together during difficult times can be helpful. For instance in Manchester, police, firefighters and paramedics responded to save lives, Mendlowitz said. Individuals offered concertgoers a place to stay, bottled water or a cellphone.
Parents are encouraged to listen to their children’s questions and answer honestly.
“Show willingness to talk about difficult things and use this as an opportunity to reassure them,” Winston’s Wish said in its response to children affected by media coverage of attacks in England.
Previous guidelines from Canadian school boards have urged parents and other adults to help older children separate what they know from speculation.
Child and adolescent psychiatrists also suggest that parents note their natural concerns but to avoid passing their own anxieties on to their children. Rather, parents are encouraged to get support from someone other than their kids.
Psychiatrists and child psychologists generally advise families to maintain routines and to look for signs a child might not be coping well, such as sleeping problems, physical complaints, changes in behaviour or emotional problems.
“Your child needs to know there are lots of caring adults around,” Mendlowitz said.