Dealing With the Easter Sunday attacks and the aftermath ((The F Word: Let's Talk Feminism and Gender)

(This piece first appeared as part of a weekly column for The Sunday Morning)

Let’s talk to our children

The last week has been a difficult one, to say the least, for all Sri Lankans, both here and at home. Many people, including me, feel a growing sense of despair and fear as we watch and consume the endless news cycles. Alongside misinformation, conspiracy theories and fake news are finding free flow among the panicked masses. People are afraid, sombre, and confused – fairly so.

In these times, it is important we don’t forget that our children are also consuming much of this material. Most adolescents have smartphones affording them access to a wider range of material and are sharing information amongst themselves. Younger children may be getting information listening to adults talk amongst themselves, from the news when it’s running on the television, or parents’ devices when they take it to play games, and even between peers. They listen and gather much more information than we adults realise, and often draw their own conclusions.

This week, I wanted to discuss how we, as parents, teachers, and concerned adults, can perhaps begin to speak to our children and adolescents about what they may have heard and understood, how they can make sense of it, and what they may be feeling during this time.

Remember, children are smarter than we think; they understand far more than we give them credit for, and all we need to do is help them make sense of what they know.

Children will generally follow good advice, but we have to give them some latitude to make their own decisions about what they’re ready for. You can block them from seeing the newspaper that comes to the door, for example, but not the one on the newsstand.

Today, as we said, older children have access to the news and graphic images through social media and other applications right from their phones. We need to be aware of what’s out there and take steps in advance to talk to them about what they might hear or see.

‘Reassuring realistically’

The first thing to remember is that in difficult times, children and adolescents take cues from the adults around them – so if you are visibly upset, fearful, and anxious (which is perfectly normal) your children will draw from this.

A good step is to address these emotions collectively and talk about it. For example, you can say: “I know we have all been feeling scared because of everything that has been going on, and that’s okay. Do you want to tell me what you are scared about?”

Depending on the age of your child, you can delve into a discussion of more complex emotions and how they can be handled, helping them name and identify how they are feeling. Clinical psychologist Dr. Sarb Johal says: “In the immediate short term, it’s important parents help children identify their emotions.” By helping name what they are experiencing, it helps them verbalise and organise what they are experiencing – which is the first step in being able to process what’s happened.

When kids feel fearful or anxious, it’s okay to distract them for a while, but it’s also equally valid to acknowledge, and help them name and deal with it. Get to know what your child’s need for information is. Ask them what they would like to know and give them access to that information too. Tell them just enough to ensure their safety and no more than that. Avoid unnecessary graphic detail. It is also important to let your child talk. Let them feel whatever it is they are feeling, without judgment or trying to minimise their reactions. It’s very tempting to try to cheer people up, especially children and young people, but for a start, just be present. Just listen.

Recent research on the impact of caregiver responses to their children seeing violent news media found “reassuring realistically” had the best outcomes for children and teens in terms of quelling anxiety. Age-appropriate, honest answers to questions and reminders that, in their daily life, they are generally very safe can help set young people’s minds at rest. While we can’t promise terrible things will not happen, we can provide reassurance about the systems in place to keep us safe and the people who care for and protect them.

For example, you can tell them: “After Sunday, people have been working very hard to make sure more people are not hurt. They are doing all they can and have been able to stop more problems.”

Encouraging a break from social media, or at least from viewing news reports and footage, can also lessen young people’s distress and anxiety.

Sharing content

With older children and adolescents, this is an opportunity to talk about why sharing violent and upsetting content can be harmful, not only in terms of its impact on viewers, but also because it gives terrorists what they want – more exposure, more impact, and a greater undermining of our community’s feelings of safety and security. Dr. Johal says: “In terms of exposure to imagery and audio descriptions about what happened in the event, understand that repeated exposure can increase the risk of anxiety and/or other issues. So, minimising this is a good idea, without burying your head in the sand.”

Countering feelings of helplessness with practical suggestions about how to help could be useful for young people of all ages. Talk about what they could do to help the victims and their families, to show support to the community, and to foster kindness and tolerance in their schools. A discussion with adolescents about the impact of intolerance in our society and how we can counter it can give them some tools to address discrimination and racism when they see it, and the motivation to do so, even though it might be hard.

Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if a child is reacting in a typical way to an unusual event or whether they are having real problems coping and might need extra support. If you are concerned, talk to your child’s paediatrician or a mental health professional or counsellor. I recommend CAFS Sri Lanka which has excellent child and adolescent psychologists and counsellors.

Don’t wait for the signs. Start the discussion early, and keep the dialogue going.

(The information in this article has been adapted from various sources. For additional graphic resources that can be shared in English, Sinhala, and Tamil please visit bakamoono.lk online or on Twitter @bakamoono.lk)

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