The Association of Child Psychotherapists offers advice on how to communicate with children and young people about terror.
The Manchester terror attack, has had a shocking and destabilising affect on many of us, but the fact that it was directed specifically at children and young people, makes it even more distressing and difficult to come to terms with. When the world we thought was safe, becomes dangerous and seemingly unpredictable, our sense of confidence and certainty can be shaken. In addition to this, when an attack happens in a place which is meant to be positive and life affirming (and could even be on our doorstep), we can feel as if no-where is safe and danger could be waiting for us around every corner.
This is especially true of children and young people who are just beginning to establish their personality, shape their identity and understand their place in the wider world. Everything they thought was safe appears to have changed - in an instant.
Who can help?
Children look to significant adults to make sense of the world for them and to provide their safety and security but also for factual information which helps them to try and understand why. Different adults will fulfill different roles and understanding these roles can be helpful when it comes to making sense of a shocking event such as a terror attack. Parents will be needed to provide overall safety, a secure foundation or base from which to reach out and explore from, whereas teachers may be more likely to provide a different kind of support, linked to learning and being part of a larger group - helping them see their place within this group and the wider world. Mental health professionals such as child and adolescent psychotherapists, can provide a safe and consistent space to reflect on trauma and process or make sense of feelings associated with the event.
Children so often blame themselves when things go wrong and require different reassurances. Parents are vital attachment figures, who need to be clear that they can protect their children and maintain their sense of security – even if some events are beyond their control. Creating opportunities to talk about the event in a thoughtful way, showing you can still think as a parent, proves to your child that you are still well, a capable protector and a good parent. It shows an anxious child that you are still functioning and that you are doing what you can to restore safety and security for your child – even when it feels as if the world has been shaken to its core.
Maintain routines where possible, to show that life continues, without denying the painful feelings attached to shock and loss, but be available to stop what you’re doing and “soak up” the deeper, more unpredictable feelings when they do surface. These could come out as anger, sadness, being “out of sorts” or overly bossy or controlling. Children may find it hard to sleep, or get up in the morning. May resist going to school or meeting with friends.
For those children not directly affected by terror attacks, they need to be reassured that their lives haven’t changed even though everything seems to have shifted. Parents are needed to provide or encourage their children to find words for scary feelings and events, whilst reflecting on the safety around their child and the security of their relationship. Identify safe spaces and toys or activities that help children to feel calm and settled. It is vital for parents to check their own feelings and anxieties before seeking to reassure children who are distressed and afraid. How adults react to and process information and respond to events, will more often than not, influence how children will respond to them.
For teachers, it is important to continue to be a consistent presence and source of secure knowledge. It is also important to make time to listen to fears and talk through events in a matter of fact, historical way, not devoid of emotion but not allowing the drama of an event or the emotional content, to escalate fears and dominate discussions. Allowing children to take turns to offer their thoughts and notice the ones who remain quiet and can’t find the words. Or the ones whose behavior changes suddenly and who are presenting differently. These are the children who may need more individual help. It is especially important not to single children out, put them on the sport or ask them to leave the room. This will only reinforce their potential fear, that they are somehow to blame for what has happened. Find a way to encourage an airing of concerns, maybe invite them to draw a picture, or write a story.
Children also need to feel that they can help in an appropriate manner. Being useful empowers them and enables them to feel more in control and less threatened. It’s important not to lie or brush away a child’s fears as this will lead to confusion rather than added security through confidence in the adult to manage distress. Older children can see for themselves what’s happening but it is still important to invite them to offer an opinion and to develop critical thinking skills which will help them make sense of things in their own way, as well as leaving room for feelings they may be less comfortable to share. Even very young children can pick up signals from whispered conversations and parental shock reactions to news, this is something adults can sometimes forget.
For those directly affected by trauma and loss, there can a number of responses, ranging from shock, carrying on as normal, wanting to shut down emotionally and hide, rage, overwhelming regret or a complete loss of interest in your life which has changed beyond what you had ever imagined. It is important to know yourself and to be kind to yourself during these times.
ACP registered child and adolescent psychotherapsist and mental health professionals
Facing feelings of grief and loss after a traumatic event, is important for emotional health, but it is very hard to do this work alone. Life is infused with loss and change but it is the suddenness of a terror attack, which leaves communities, families and individuals reeling. Child and adolescent psychotherapists are specialists trained to work with children, young people and their families who have emotional and mental health difficulties including those who have experienced trauma and loss. You can visit the find a therapist section of our website or get in touch with us for more information about what our members offer and our training. There are also other mental health professionals who can offer support. We would recommend finding a practitioner who is registered with an organisation accredited with the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) http://www.professionalstandards.org.uk/accredited-registers/ or the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) http://hcpc-uk.org/.