Processing the nightmare of the recent terror attacks in Paris and Beirut is tough enough for grown ups. And when such terrible things happen, our natural instinct may be to shield little ones from them. But is this the best way to help children deal with distressing current events? We ask Carey Kirk, a grief and critical incident management specialist at The LightHouse Arabia (www.lighthousearabia.com) and program coordinator of Raymee Grief Center, for her advice:
What advice do you have for someone who may be feeling anxious or panicked by the recent terror attacks?
It is important for us all to recognise that it is natural to feel more anxious and on edge after learning of the recent attacks in Paris. These feelings can last for a few days to a few weeks. In this time, it helps to be patient with and compassionate to ourselves and those around us as we may be more sensitive or irritable than usual. Taking time for ourselves and keeping to a healthy routine that involves exercise, regular sleep, a healthy diet, and spending time with people we care about can help us manage feelings of anxiety. If people have difficulty going out to public places or their anxiety is impacting their day to day lives, speaking to a psychologist can help them learn strategies to manage their anxiety. When we are feeling anxious about the wellbeing of our loved ones, it can help to reach out to them and let them know that they are important to us.
How should we communicate with our children regarding attacks like these?
With an event so shocking and widely covered by the media such as these recent attacks, it is important that we spend time talking with our children about it. This communication enables us to better understand how our children have interpreted and been impacted by this news and how to best support them.
Before sitting down with our children, it is important to work through our own reactions first. Children are sensitive to and base their reactions on the responses of those around them. It is best to hold these conversations when we are able to speak calmly so that we do not accidentally project our fears onto our children. However, it is important to acknowledge that it is ok to feel frightened and sad.
When communicating with our children regarding attacks like these, it is important to talk to them about what happened by giving them honest information in age appropriate language and then allow them to ask questions. Don’t go into details or overload them with information. Children will ask you if they want to know more. In this discussion, avoid stereotyping people by nationality, religion, or race. Be willing to answer questions honestly and consistently. Children learn through repetition and it is not unusual for children – especially younger children – to ask the same questions over and over again. This is their way of establishing safety.
If children express fears, reassure them without making unrealistic promises. It is natural for children to worry about the safety of themselves and their loved ones after learning about a tragedy. Lastly, monitor and limit children’s media exposure – especially if there are violent or upsetting images on TV.
What is a normal reaction to such terrible news and when could it be time to seek help?
It is natural to feel shocked, frightened and saddened by the recent attacks in Paris. Learning about the unexpected and violent deaths of people in a place we typically think of as safe is shocking. This sense of shock and other emotions can be even greater if we have traveled to Paris recently, lived there in the past, or have family or friends there. An attack such as this challenges our sense of security and makes us second guess our assumptions about how safe the world is. In the aftermath of such news, we can be fearful about going out in public places and hypervigilant to noises or things that we interpret as suspicious. Other feelings we may experience include anger, helplessness, and vulnerability.
After news of such an event, it is also normal for our minds to gravitate towards thinking about how we would feel if these were our loved ones, if this had been our experience. This line of thinking can bring up feelings of distress, anxiety, and grief. These thoughts can be especially painful if we have recently experienced the death of someone close to us or know someone who has died in a violent way. Feelings such as these motivate us to check in on our loved ones and we may find ourselves being more anxious and fearful about their safety and health than we were before.
For most individuals, these fears and responses subside naturally over the course of a few weeks and we begin to feel more like our normal selves. If 4-6 weeks passes and we still do not feel like our selves or continue to feel fearful about going to public places such as malls or restaurants, it can be helpful to speak with a psychologist and get support. If these attacks evoke feelings of grief due to person’s own loss history, free support for grief can be accessed through Raymee Grief Center.
For younger children, it is normal for them to experience nightmares, increased clinginess, and regression in behaviors (eg: starting to thumb suck again, bed wetting, fear of the dark or not wanting to sleep alone). Some children may also express anxiety through physical sensations such as stomach aches or body pains or difficulty concentrating. Older children and teens may experience increased anxiety and reactions similar to adults.
Most children and teens will naturally return to their normal selves with support from their family and time to process the events. However, some children or teens may need professional support if they appear preoccupied or very stressed about war, fighting, or terrorism; have ongoing trouble sleeping; experience persistent upsetting thoughts or fearful images; experience intense fears about death; or have trouble leaving their parents or going to school.
Is there anything constructive to take away from any of this?
When devastating events such as this happen anywhere in the world, the world’s response serves as a reminder that compassion and love are more powerful than hate and prejudice. France has seen an outpouring of support and compassion from all over the world in the recent days with messages of solidarity communicating that there are more people who support life and peace than those who want to destroy it.
The Raymee Grief Center offers free Grief Consultations and Grief Support Groups for anyone dealing with a bereavement in the UAE. See www.lighthousearabia.com for details.