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How to help children cope with shocking news

Children placing flowers and cards at a makeshift memorial to slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Children placing flowers and cards at a makeshift memorial to slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Talking to children about horrible news is difficult. As adults we are frequently shocked by such news. Many of us would remember for instance the exact place we were in when we heard about 9/11 or the 2004 Indian Ocean Boxing Day tsunami.

Closer to home, the happenings in Malta over the past few weeks seem to have raised alarm unparalleled on this side of the millennium. We hear our children’s questions, experience their reactions and try to respond while still in the midst of trying to make some sense of it all. It is indeed a challenge for all parents, educators and adults to simultaneously meet children’s need to know and yet protect them from excessive anxiety. Still, for the sake of our children’s well-being, it is not a challenge we can overlook or avoid.

At some point, through direct or indirect means, our children will be exposed to news about terror attacks, natural disasters, accidental death, deadly illness and violent crimes. As parents or educators convincing ourselves that we can shield our children from exposure to the more unpleasant things in life is tantamount to avoidance or denial.

Even more concerning, if we attempt to avoid the subject or shield them from it, we will not help children develop the necessary coping skills around dealing with a world where pain and pleasure, justice and unfairness, death and life co-exist. Avoidance will only teach our children that some things are unmentionable and unsharable, thus condemning them to silence and to bearing their anxieties and fears alone.

So how do we go about facing this challenge? These tips will help.

Give the child permission to talk about difficult and unpleasant things and be ready to answer questions as honestly as you can using child-appropriate language that is simple but not simplistic. Bite-sized information with some time for chewing in-between is usually the best.

If you don’t know how to answer a child’s question, admit this. Tell your child that you will check things out and get back to them later. The timing of the discussion might not suit you but if the child decides to speak to you, do your best to address their concerns when it suits them. If it is impossible or unsafe to do so, be sure to clearly indicate to the child when in the very near future you will be able to continue the discussion. Then keep your word.

Long-winded explanations with useless detail are usually very unhelpful. Stick to short explanantions. Prepare what you are going to say ahead of time if you have the possibility of doing so. Stop talking if you notice that the child is overwhelmed and comfort them in the way they would like to be comforted, e.g. a hug, stroking their hair, eating an ice-lolly, or doing an activity together like baking a cake or drawing a picture.

Contain your own anxiety. Right from early infancy children look into the faces of significant and trusted adults around them to understand things about their environment. They pick up emotions from facial expressions, tone of voice and body movements to decide whether they should engage in flight, fight or freeze reactions to what is happening around them. An awareness of how horrible news might be affecting you, how you come across to the child and what your body language may be telling them will go a long way to helping the child contain their own anxiety.

Convincing ourselves that we can shield our children from exposure to the more unpleasant things in life is tantamount to avoidance or denial

Be there. This means switching off your mobile to listen to the child, avoiding all distraction for the duration of the discussion and giving them your full undivided attention. It also means being sensitive not only to what the child is saying but also to what they are not saying. Through your soothing tone of voice and supportive words you can communicate an understanding rather than a discrediting of their feelings. Yet this does not mean offering false reassurance. If a child asks whether the event can repeat itself, it is more helpful to say that it may happen again but that such occurences are very rare, rather than saying that it will never happen again. Above all, you want to make sure that through your comforting, physical presence the child knows that you will do everything in your power to take care of them and to protect them from harm.

Know your child. As a parent you are one of the persons who know your child best. Investing in your relationship with your child means knowing their limits, their coping skills and how they behave when anxious or stressed. Knowing your child means knowing how they cope with stress.  Not all children and adults cope in the same way. While some children may need access to physically burn off the tension, others may need more affective channels to express their emotions. Some children cope by thinking it through, others by resorting to the social connection with their peer group or family, while others need more creative channels. Knowing your child’s coping style will help you provide what they need most when the world around them starts looking like an unsafe place to be in.

Create a sanctuary of sensory comfort. If you don’t have one already, create a go-to safe space within the child’s home filled with items/sensations that the child finds soothing. These are child-specific but usually include pillows, a blanket, a soft toy, stress balls or fidget items, soft lighting, soothing smells like lavender or camomile, chewy/crunchy food, a relaxing book, instant ice packs and music of their choice.

Help the child get back a sense of safety. Remind the child that the world can be a safe place where nice things happen and good people live. Plan a picnic, an outing to a favourite family place, a fun activity with friends. Top up the child’s positive experiences by creating opportunities for happy memories and pleasant moments. Be sure to speak about these moments at least as many times as you discuss less favourable things.

Reflect on your own interventions. Being able to look back and reflect on our actions is one on the most powerful tools to be able to improve our interactions with children. How did the child react to my action? What was I thinking when they asked me a particular question? How did my thinking affect my feelings and thus my behaviour? As we engage in self-reflection, we may need to ask for feedback from our partners and indeed from our own children. Children are constantly observing us and can provide us with expert and honest feedback.

Monitor the child and seek professional help if necessary. Look out for:

▪ prolonged changes in eating and/or sleeping habits;

▪ persistent and obsessive thoughts about something else happening to the point that daily functioning is disrupted;

▪ excessive irritability;

▪ out-of-character tantrums;

▪ re-experiencing of what they know about the event through nightmares, play or recounting of the event to anyone who will listen;

▪ regression to an earlier developmental stage.

These may be signs that the event might have sparked off a trauma reaction in the child. Behaviour is communication and should not be criticised or punished if related to the child’s fears and concerns. If you notice any of the above, contact a child healthcare professional.

Daniel Mercieca works as an HCPC (UK) registered dramatherapist with children and adults. Roberta Attard is a chartered clinical psychologist, social worker and full-time lecturer with the Department of Counselling, University of Malta.

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