David Coleman: How to ease your children's fears about terrorism
Clarification and just listening to children's thoughts are all helpful, writes psychologist David Coleman
It is almost impossible to shield our children from bad, upsetting or frightening news. Even if they don't hear it on the radio, or see it on TV, they may hear about it in the schoolyard, or have it delivered to them online via their peers on social media.
We can almost assume, in the current internet-enabled world, that our children will have heard about terrible atrocities like the bombing at the Manchester Arena. If they hear about it, we can also assume that they will have some kind of emotional response to that news, or those images or stories. In truth there is no "right" reaction to terrorist attacks, no particular emotional response that we can expect from a child.
We can guess that they are likely to be shocked, saddened, frightened or horrified. Just like us, they may try to make sense of things like bombings, or they may just be terrorised by it.
So, what our children need is our help and support to try to contextualise, understand and then regulate their feelings about things like the Manchester bombing. To do that, we have to talk to our children.
Our first goal is to try to establish what they know about the incident. They may have already picked up some information, or they may just have an awareness that we are tuned in to the news, or that we, ourselves are distressed by something. Knowing some of the facts may help children and may ease any confusion about what has happened, or any speculation about what has happened. We can explore what they know by asking an open question. You might say, for example, "You may have heard that something bad happened in Manchester the other day. I just want to check what do you know about that?" This kind of question shows your child that you are open to talking about the attacks.
From there, you may find that you are just listening to them as they tell you what they know and how they feel about that. Not all children will be aware or open and so you may find that you are responding to their questions. Try to answer them as honestly as you can.
With younger children, you are going to try to keep things really simple. For example you might try to explain why this could happen by saying something like, "there are some people who try to hurt others, but we know it is never right to hurt anyone, no matter how bad or mad we feel".
With older children or teenagers, we can add extra information about religion or politics or whatever we believe to be the motivation.
Be conscious of how your child talks about the incident. For example, they may personalise the experience, asking something like, "why are those bombers trying to kill us?". It is important to clarify that "they aren't trying to kill us, they don't even know us." This clarification can create a bit of distance for a child, who might otherwise create bigger fears of "bad people" breaking into their home to attack them.
You may find that you need to talk to your children about something like the Manchester bombing on more than one occasion. How they process and deal with incidents like this can take time. So they may have more questions, or be able to make more contextual links, as time passes. We do want to show our children that we are always open to talking about difficult things.
We also have to remember that children often rely on us to make sense of their own feelings. They may need us to soothe, or regulate, their feelings. This is especially the case with strong, intense, feelings like sadness, fear or anger.
Some of that soothing and regulation will come from our ability to empathise with them and acknowledge the feelings that they seem to have. Some of it will come from their experience of how we, ourselves, seem to be coping with the news.
There are some interesting experiments that have been done, looking at the way chickens react to perceived danger. One response from chickens is "tonic immobilisation". In other words, chickens actually freeze when they perceive danger. They can get stuck for about a minute until they "unfreeze".
If during that minute a second "calm" chicken appears, that doesn't seem to be scared; it allows the first chicken to "unfreeze" in a matter of seconds. It is like the calmness of the second chicken acts as a reassurance for the first, scared, chicken. If the second chicken also appears scared, then both chickens can end up stuck, immobilised, for up to five minutes. The fear shown by the second chicken compounds the first chicken's fear.
While we are not chickens, the same principle can often apply to children and how they "read" their parents reaction to something. If children perceive that we are terrified, upset, or angry, it may add to their own feeling.
So, while we can't expect to deny our own emotional response, it does help our children if we can contain our own feelings enough that we can project an assurance or confidence that the risk of harm to us and our family is infinitesimal. Appearing confident is not designed to deny our child's experience or their feelings. We want them to be able to feel whatever they feel. But, we also want to show them that we are that second, calm, chicken and that our children are not alone with their big feelings.