Thursday 17 October 2019

Calm in the face of terror

Bomb attacks, wars - the world can seem like a scary place. Our reporter asks the experts how parents can help children navigate the nasty stuff

Dealing with bad news: Jan Redmond and her children Johnny and Matilda. Photo: Arthur Carron
Dealing with bad news: Jan Redmond and her children Johnny and Matilda. Photo: Arthur Carron
Ariana Grande concert attendees Karen Moore and her daughter Molly Steed (14) from Derby, leave the hotel where they were given refuge after last night's explosion at Manchester Arena
Dr Laurie Zelinger's book Please explain terrorism to me

Kathy Donaghy

Images of stricken parents carrying the lifeless bodies of their children were beamed around the world after the most recent gas attacks in Syria. Man's inhumanity to man is hard enough for an adult to understand in these circumstances. What must it look like when you're seven or eight and the children in the pictures look like they're the same age as you?

Closer to home, events such as the Manchester atrocity present big questions to parents on how to talk to their children about why bad things happen to good people. You can keep media to a minimum but chances are they will from time to time pick up on things that you find hard to explain.

In Australia it was exactly this dilemma that led journalist Saffron Howden to set up the country's first newspaper written specifically with seven to 15- year-olds in mind. Howden, a long time reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald, says she saw a gap in the news market for a newspaper that parents wouldn't be horrified to see their children reading.

"I was hearing a lot of stories from parents about how their kids really wanted to read the newspaper but the parents felt like they had to go through and cut out certain stories beforehand. A lot of them were also turning off the television when the evening news came on, in case there were stories that were presented in a way that the kids weren't ready to deal with," says Howden.

Ariana Grande concert attendees Karen Moore and her daughter Molly Steed (14) from Derby, leave the hotel where they were given refuge after last night's explosion at Manchester Arena
Ariana Grande concert attendees Karen Moore and her daughter Molly Steed (14) from Derby, leave the hotel where they were given refuge after last night's explosion at Manchester Arena

The Crinkling News was born out of what she felt was a need to explain things to children in a way they could understand. After the attack on London's Westminster Bridge in March, The Crinkling News ran a feature that answered basic questions about the attack - "What is terrorism?" - and reminded readers that the number of terrorists in the world remains small. The issue also featured advice from a psychologist on what children should do if they had trouble emotionally processing the attack.

US-based psychologist Dr Laurie Zelinger's new book Please explain terrorism to me is her attempt to do just that in a child-friendly way. She says she wrote the book because we are surrounded by troubling images of terrorism in all forms of the media and she wanted to be able to give parents a tool to help explain it to their children in a way that could be understood at their developmental level.

Dr Zelinger, who is also a mum of four adult children, says she is seeing vast increases in the levels of anxiety that kids experience daily. And she says the best things parents can do when explaining emotionally scary news to their children is to keep it simple. "I wouldn't give them information about things they are unlikely to come in contact with. But issues that they are likely to hear about at a local level for example on the school bus, give them a simple and honest answer," she says.

"If you witness something with them on the TV news, you might say something like 'I bet you're wondering about that'. When you give them the opportunity to speak you are not pigeonholing them but now you can find out what's on their mind," she says.

A tool she uses in her own practice before she ends a session with a child is by telling them they're almost done but first they can ask one question. "You give them the opportunity to vent what is on their mind. That one question - even if they are reluctant - you can soon find out what's going on," says Dr Zelinger.

"For children, one of the most important things is give them time. Do not hurry and do not appear hurried. You really need to read their cues," she says.

Dr Laurie Zelinger's book Please explain terrorism to me
Dr Laurie Zelinger's book Please explain terrorism to me

For mum of two and lecturer in journalism at Ballyfermot College of Further Education Jan McRedmond, if she feels news stories are inappropriate for her children Johnny (9) and Matilda (7), she'll turn the TV or radio off. "You want to make them aware of things but you don't want them to have a bleak picture of the world. By their nature all the hard news stories are negative - I have this discussion with my students all the time. With children, while they have to be aware that bad things happen and you have to prepare them for the rough and tumble of life, I don't want them to be anxious," says Jan. "While I would like them to be informed and it's unrealistic to shield them from everything, at the same time I believe in letting them have their childhood. What do they need to know? When the court reports are on, I just turn those off. You do need to protect them from really horrible stories," she says.

While Jan says she feels it's important to tell her children some of what's going on in the world in order to teach them empathy, she says there are many news stories they just don't need to know about. "It's about letting them know the world is a good place. We can make it a good place by being nice to people. Of course we tell them there are people who are not good. It's simplistic but it works," she says.

Creating an awareness of what goes on in the world and explaining it in a child-appropriate way is not being made easier for parents with the advent of so called "fake news". A report by Stanford University published last November found that 82pc of US teens couldn't distinguish between an ad labelled "sponsored content" and a real news story on a website.

And while preteens and teens may appear dazzlingly fluent in their social media use, often they are clueless about the trustworthiness about what they find online.

Psychologist Sarah O'Doherty says having a conversation with children at a basic level about lies and reality is a good place to start. "Tell them there's two sides to every story. You should tell them to look at all the information and weigh it up. For older children remind them to check the statistics - if something says 90pc of people agree with this, point out that the sample might only have been 10 people," she says.

"The basic skills you are teaching your children never change whether it's online or nor. As a parent it's about making sure they're being nice to people and not bullying people. It's also about not jumping to assumptions about people that are not true. You're part of that 'fake news' if you forward it to other people and perpetuate it," says O'Doherty.

Parenting coach Allen O'Donoghue agrees and says parents must talk to their children about the importance of not jumping on the bandwagon when it comes to information online. "When they read something, teach them to take a pause before they react," he says.

Be truthful and keep it simple

Child psychologist Sarah O'Doherty says when emotionally scary events happen, it's important to remind children that such events are unusual and extremely rare and unlikely ever to happen again.

She says it's best to be truthful and keep it simple.

"Younger children do not need to know all the facts and too much detail can frighten and overwhelm them. Older children may have already picked up a lot of detail from social media so first establish what they know and then try to correct any misinformation or rumours.

"Use clear language: Do not use phrases such as 'on the other side' or 'with the angels'. These can frighten children. "Be gently clear that the person is 'dead' and that this means they are not coming back," says O'Doherty.

Parenting coach Allen O'Donoghue says listening to your child's fears around a frightening event is important. In this way you can hear what their fears are and respond by telling them they're safe. He also points out that it's OK not to tell them everything.

"A lot will depend on the age of the child. They're only children - if you can't process it, they're going to struggle to process it.

"Keep it simple and reassure them throughout," says O'Donoghue.

Irish Independent

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