How do we help children and teenagers respond to the Manchester attack?
Firstly, unlike many disasters we hear about, this is about children and young teenagers doing something very normal and ordinary –in the company of a former TV star with happy, fun memories. So it is something our children can identify with and they can imagine more acutely how it coud happen to them. There is far less of a protective “buffer” against trauma.
And as parents, we also identify – because we have all wondered how our children will get on when they go out to big events with friends.
How it affects different ages
· Young children (3-5 years) will probably not be too bothered by it, unless you as a parent, or their big brothers and sisters are distressed. and they see those reactions.
· From about 5 or 6 onwards they enter a social world, and often happen upon news which they don’t quite understand. This is when they are possible going to worry – because the bad things which are kept at arms length – hurt, losing sight of parents and children’s distress seem to be on the news. For this age the worry bypasses thinking and goes straight to a more “gut” reaction. You might see children who are observers and ‘worriers’ getting tummy aches or behaving badly.
· Most affected would be children from about 8 years when they could feel very sad and may have worries about going out, they may see the parallels more clearly. And of course tweens and early teenagers who will be glued to social media, and are both shocked and fascinated by it.
We can help children by understanding that we react on two levels.
Think of your mind like a house.
You might have a thought like “Oh that is so sad and awful” (The UPSTAIRS thought)
But also a hidden or private worry (The BASEMENT thought) – This second level is more confused,irrational and imagined – like thinking this will happen in your town next, or losing mum or dad or siblings or becoming hypervigilant around crowds, and possibly not wanting to go out of the house to school. It is an unconscious recation.
What can parents do to help children manage these things and not be overwhelmed?
Watch what you are watching. So no TV at dinner, radio in the car, having your iPad open at “breaking news” !
It takes TIME to process. ..first there is shock and disbelief, and young people can get very excited by the drama presented in the media. Teens especially can get rather obsessed in an attempt to deal with their anxieties by “getting more news”. Take it slowly.
Don’t feel you have to give a full account – answer the questions they ask.– under 7s need to know they are safe, 8 and up – need explanations plus reassurance.
Try not to give a good/evil version of events. This only results in children looking out for the “bad guys” which of course is an over- simplified explanation. Say perpetrators are “muddled” or “confused” – that all races and religions don’t promote violence.
We need to help children begin to understand how people are motivated by all sorts of fears and angry feelings.
And let life carry on as normal: the routine of meals, school, activities and a safe bed is a reliable framework.
How do we deal with their feelings? Upset, scared etc ?
Let them be sad – give lots of hugs and cuddles, sit beside, or near those early teens who 'don't want a hug', take a “moment’s silence” – say “It’s just really awful and hard to believe, or understand”. “It is not fair”. Some questions of shock and disbelief just have to be left unanswered, but listened to.,
Remember Bedtime is a vulnerable time –worrying and staying awake processing it all. – need calming rituals thoughts, prayers, pointing to familiar safe things.
There might be “Stuck record” worries, where they are fretting over and over – allow them to repeat and ask again, they need time to absorb and process- like we do !
Perhaps ask them to do pictures, or just see if there are drawings, and images that show how they feel. These are often a good way to offload those underneath worries.
You might want to ask them what they have been thinking about it (maybe using the house thoughts idea) – “sometimes we have thoughts about things upstairs in the bit of our minds we can know about” but also “we have other tricky worries or thoughts that are in the basement”. Or what do other kids at school say?
No thought is too silly to say.
Is there anything practically we can do for children hearing bad news?
If you’re children are troubled by this news, and talking has come to a pause – you can DO something. Light a candle in you rhome for the families. Send a message to the helping services. Draw a picture or a card that says what you want to say and post it.
Ordinary reactions of all ages can sometimes be to ignore it all and run off and play, or to laugh or play act disasters. For children, it’s not being disrespectful, it’s trying to work it out.
It may take some time, but they can cope with the awful events they hear about – if we listen, think about it and can talk together.