Terrible things happen around the world every day and as much as we try to shield our children from it, it isn’t always as simple as turning off the television when the news comes on.
When a gunman turns on people just going about their lives, when a child is dragged from his parents by an alligator, when terrorists hijack planes and when families are tear-gassed at border crossings, little eyes and ears are trying to process what is going on.
Just as we struggle to understand why any of these things happen, our children look to us.
The world we build, the words we use, the expressions on our faces, and our actions are done in front of tiny sponges looking for answers.
US mum Stacey Wehrman Feeley summed up the enormous responsibility we have when it comes to shaping the world for future generations with a post on Facebook.
Thinking she was taking a funny photo of her three-year-old daughter being mischievous by standing on the toilet, she soon realised her toddler was practicing a lockdown drill shown to her by her preschool.
“At that moment all innocence of what I thought my three-year-old possessed was gone,” Stacey writes.
While her post was geared towards more action on gun control in her home country, her words resonated with so many including Marisa Evan who wrote, “When I was three, I was scared of the monster in my closet or under my bed. This breaks my heart”.
So in light of recent events, how do we explain horrors that happen in the world to our children?
The Australian Psychological Society explains how and when we can tell if our children are feeling distressed and how to go about helping them to understand and feel safe when tragedies hit the news or terrorism hits close to home.
Signs that children are feeling distressed
Look for changes in their play, drawing, dreams or conversations. Watch for if they are having trouble sleeping or concentrating, are extra fussy with their food or are acting younger than they normally do. Withdrawing, increased questions and outburst can all be signs a child is struggling with something.
What can we do?
- Monitor their exposure to media. Violent images can linger in young minds so limit the amount they see of tragedy and terror. If they are watching the news, watch it with them so you can reassure and explain the content.
- Listen to understand how children are feeling and thinking and encourage them to talk to you. Be patient and prepare to answer repeat questions. Give honest and thoughtful explanations to help them understand, and clear up any misconceptions.
- Provide children with opportunities to express their feelings such as through play.
- A hug can go a long way. Children need to feel safe, they need reassurance they are being looked after and nothing bad will happen to them. Tell them about the people who are working hard to keep them and others safe.
- Be mindful of a child’s understanding when talking about upsetting events as they can distort what they see and hear.
- Pay attention to your own reactions. Children may respond to the feelings being expressed around them. Remember they take in a lot more than we often give them credit for.
- Avoid stereotyping and blaming by helping children to distinguish between anger at specific people who behave cruelly from the groups they belong to.
- Give children a feeling of security and hope. Help them see their world is a safe place, most people are good, and life is worth living.
What age should children be before we talk about terrorism?
- Pre-school children: should be shielded completely from frightening or traumatic world events by not letting them watch or hear media coverage of such events or related adult conversations.
- Primary school children: are more exposed to hearing about events from peers or the media. It can help to start the conversation to clarify facts and set the emotional tone.
- Older children: are likely to be very aware of the media coverage and may understand the political issues better. More in-depth discussions with parents and teachers can help them make sense of it and process their emotions.
It can be difficult to know the best approach, family therapist and accredited social health worker Michael Anderton recently shared with Babyology his insights into how to help children understand traumatic events.