With every news outlet across the country covering the terrifying siege at the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place, Sydney, it will be difficult to avoid exposing children to the drama. So how should parents handle it?
Psychologist Dr Susie Burke says for young children, total avoidance of media coverage is ideal – so turn off the TV, swap car radio for a CD, and keep newspapers out of sight.
“Kids under five aren’t going to be hearing other kids in their peer group talking about it, so if they’re not going to talk about it they don’t need to hear about it,” says Dr Burke, senior psychologist in the Australian Psychological Society’s public interest and disasters team. “Be mindful of children in the room when talking about it with other adults, and who’s listening when you are listening to the radio, and making sure they’re not watching the news with you.”
She says it’s also best to avoid exposing primary schoolchildren to the media coverage if possible, because they are unable to properly comprehend it. “But you might be wanting to hear whether they have heard about anything and if so, ask them what they know and what they think,” she says. “Correct any misconceptions and reassure them they are safe and you will protect them and lots of people are working very hard to make sure that everybody is very safe and they know what they are doing.”
Dr Burke says young children have a different understanding of time and space to adults and older children. “If they’re hearing something over and over again, they tend to be thinking it’s happening over and over again – whereas we know it’s one story and one event,” she says.
“They also have no concept that what they are listening to is happening in a very different place far from them, and they are not involved. The reason it’s so frightening is because children think, ‘I’m unsafe, something terrible is going to happen’. “
She says parents who want to keep up-to-date have enough “passive” sources of information, such as smartphones that can be checked privately – so watching rolling coverage on the TV is not really necessary.
How to handle tricky questions
No matter how hard parents try, it’s inevitable that some children will see or hear about the events in Sydney – and they’ll probably want to ask about it.
“Most important is to be open to the question, to be happy for them to ask and take the time to give them the best answers we can,” Dr Burke says. “We want to try to work out what they think has happened so we can correct any misconceptions and try to understand their feelings. With slightly older children, one of the things we get parents to be really mindful of is to be aware of stereotypes around the problem.”
She says parents should be aware of the emotions they are showing their children. “These events are hugely distressing and hugely anxiety-provoking, so children take cues of how to cope from adults,” she says. “Being able to model managing your emotions is really important.” She advises parents to talk to another adult if they are feeling worried or distressed.
How to know if your child is anxious
Dr Burke says a change in normal behaviour is the best warning sign that a child is feeling uneasy or distressed. “They could be more clingy, more fussy, more irritable, they might have more trouble sleeping. A change in how they usually are indicates they have something on their mind,” she says.
She says the best way to help is to give children the attention they need. “Give them cuddles, hugs and let them be more clingy if they need to be more clingy,” she says.
She says such dramatic events can have a lasting effect on children. “It can come to be that children start to have their optimism and idealism about the world shattered,” she says.
“We want them to feel safe and secure in their home and families, and believe the world is a great place and people are usually good and life is worth living. That’s one of the big tasks of parenting – that children know that bad things and sad things happen along the way, but ultimately we work best when we believe that the world and people are usually good, and to be able to accept and respect different people and different ways of doing things.”
For more advice, see this Australian Psychological Society tip sheet on talking to children about distressing events or this Child Study Center article on talking to children about acts of terrorism and war.