Mass shooting in Christchurch 15 March 2019: Advice to parents - How should I talk with my children?

I’ve been a psychologist for over 30 years now, and a clinical psychologist for over 16 of those. I’ve been working in disaster mental health for 13 years in New Zealand, and I’ve helped in quite a few major incidents that we’ve experienced during that time.

UPDATE: Also check this interview I did for Radio New Zealand, and this further blog post on what you might be feeling and why.

Firstly, I want to say that my thoughts and prayers are with those who have been affected today - all the families and friends of those who lost their lives or have been injured . And I know there are a lot of people who are afraid tonight - which makes it even more important for us to come together in this time of need and to send a firm and clear message that we condemn this terror attack and reject all that it stands for.

I’ve been asked by a few people about how to talk about the terrible multiple attacks in Christchurch today, especially with children and young people and you have a parental or other caregiving role with them. Should you even be talking about it at all?

People are also wondering how they themselves should talk or act about this, as parents, grandparents, teachers, members of their community etc. So I thought I’d put this quick video together.

We are connected to media 24/7 and often have the belief more information will help us piece together a situation. However, the news agenda can be very negative, especially after an event like this. It’s important to remember we have a choice in how much it’s helpful to expose ourselves – and our children – to bad news.

There’s only so much information that’s going to make it any more understandable. Children take their cue from parents or caregivers. They’ll be looking to parents for a signal as to how to react to a situation. If you’re feeling shaky - and I know I am - its important to ensure that you get the support you can at a time when it makes sense for you to get it. In the immediate short term, It’s important parents help children identify their emotions. By helping to name what they are experiencing, it helps them to verbalise and organise what they are experiencing - which is the first step of being able to process what has happened.

When kids are feeling fearful or anxious it’s okay to distract them for a while, but it’s also equally valid to acknowledge that, help them to name that and help them to deal with that. 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 enough to be safe, and no more than that. Avoid unnecessary graphic detail.

And 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.

Completely shielding yourself or children is probably unrealistic in today’s world. It’s Friday today, And if you’re children were caught up in the lockdown in the city today while events unfolded, it's likely that there was a lot of talk focused on today’s events as information leaked in then too. So, overall It's better that you’re there to help them manage their emotions rather than your kids hearing and talking about further facts and details as they emerge, or rumours that are bound to spread,  when no adults are around to support them.

Remember, smaller children won’t necessarily be able to tell that a live updating newsstream is all about the same event - they may think that many events are all happening all after another, being repeated endlessly. This is just one of many many reasons to be very careful about what you talk about in front of children - they have eyes and ears and are always listening and watching. Also be very careful what you re-share over the internet too - many vulnerable people are feeling afraid, and we don’t need to escalate that right now. There’s plenty of information there if people want it without it necessarily being pushed to them from every angle.

Avoid talking about the gory details - some of the eye witness testimonies and first person point of view videos that are being aired at the moment could be very detailed and distressing, so it’s best to minimise exposing your children to that. And you may wish to advise older children that it's easy to end up chasing details on the internet, so helping them to limit that is good - and quite firmly if necessary.  It's easy to do, we are only human and subject to an environment that encourages to disappear down rabbit holes if we are not careful. Hours can pass and we can surface feeling all kinds of agitation and anxiety. I can fall prey to it myself if I am not careful. So, do be quite mindful of setting limits for yourself too.

Helpful things to say include locating this in the overall scheme of things - that although We can no longer say that these events don’t happen in New Zealand, these events are very rare. Try not to change your routines or plans to go to events, but at the same time, heed the official advice about whether it is safe for you to go out or not.

Teachers will also be likely to be talking about this over the next few days - children and young people are curious and want to know what happened. I think it is reasonable to expect that teachers will let children and young people to ask questions about the attack, but also emphasising the shared sense of community, safety and protection in the school environment. Just as at home, structure and routines are important - they help to create a sense of calm, predictability, and real safety.

One way of re-framing this kind of an event is to draw attention to how many people came to assist and help after an event like this, rather than focusing on the terrible event and motives of those who brought it about. That’s not to deny this exists, but it helps to show that there is good in the world, to balance the very obvious threat that has become very apparent in our children’s worlds.

I’ll finish by saying that today, tomorrow, and for the following, days, months and years, we will need to reach out to each other - those who are in fear tonight, though no fault of their own. It's only by making extra efforts to connect with each other, no matter how painful that may feel that we will be able to come together and heal as a community, as a country. And a final thank you to all those who have been helping - in the emergency services, and health and welfare services, paid and voluntary alike, fo your efforts to assist in trying and dangerous circumstances.

I think that’s enough from me for now, but I’ll come back in the next couple of days with specific things that experience and research has told us that we might expect for children and adolescents, and what you can do to help them.

Let me know if the comments on whatever platform you’re watching this on if that would help. You can also reach me at sarbjohal.com

I also did this show for Radio New Zealand after the Kaikoura earthquakes in November 2016. Much of what is contained here about talking with children after that event is relevant here too. Feel free to have a listen.

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