The University of Auckland’s Carol Mutch asks how we can help children cope with fears brought about by exposure to the horrors of mass tragedy

Tuesday night’s TV1 news began with a promo of the Las Vegas shootings. I stopped in my tracks. Not because I didn’t know what had happened but because it appeared without introduction or warning. I had seen the same footage on CNN the night before but then I chose to watch it knowing something about what I might see. As TV1’s introductory music phased out, the newsreaders provided explanation of the chaotic cellphone footage they had just played. I am writing this piece – not because I want to castigate TV1 or any other news channel – but because it left me thinking about how I might have dealt with the coverage had I had my 7 and 9-year-old grandchildren with me. Would I have turned it off? Would I have let them watch? Would I have left it without comment? Would I have turned it into a discussion?

I was reminded of an interview I conducted with a school principal after the Canterbury earthquakes. He said he had learned that those comforting phrases about not worrying, it could never happen again, were no longer appropriate – it could and it did. Instead, he had to find a balance between reassurance and reality. He found himself saying, “Yes, it could happen again, but we’ve lived through it before and we have a better idea of what to do now.”  So, what do we say as parents, or wider whānau, when children are watching these events unfold on our screens – or their devices? What do we say as teachers when children come back to school? My research into post-disaster contexts has given me some insights into how we might respond to such events and help children cope.

I want to make three points. The first is that we need to be honest about what  happens in the world and what could possibly happen here – without raising children’s anxiety levels. The second is that we need to provide opportunities for discussing or processing events without letting children dwell too much on them or revisit them too frequently. The third is that we want to provide strategies that might help them cope with real or imagined events.

Let’s start with the first point. It is very hard to shelter children from what goes on in the world. We are bombarded by real – and fake – news every day. What they don’t come across for themselves will be relayed to them in some form or another. It is important that they learn to sort information from hysteria. What is a credible source and what is the most accurate picture we can pull together? It is important to link to, or develop, their knowledge of history, geography and current affairs so that they can begin to make sense of locations and connections. It helps also use mathematics, through statistics and probability, to put these events into perspective.

While we seem to live in a violent world, it is, in fact, more peaceful than at any other time in history. The increased speed of access to information means that we know more than we ever did before about such events. We can compare the probability of deaths from shootings or terrorist events to deaths we take for granted, such as those on our roads. This is not to deny that these are shocking and tragic events, but putting them into context can help relieve some anxiety. We cannot say that they will never happen here but we can talk realistically about the likelihood which, given our location and society, is slight but not impossible. We can instead talk about the agencies and services that we have in place to detect and/or respond.

It is important that they learn to sort information from hysteria. What is a credible source and what is the most accurate picture we can pull together?

The second point, linked closely to the first, is to give children the opportunity to raise their concerns. Another finding from the Canterbury earthquakes is that most children will experience some problems after a traumatic event, such as clinginess, bedwetting or fear of sudden noises, but most will recover over time. Up to a third might have longer term issues – and the current mental health statistics in Canterbury are highlighting where the issues are unresolved and the services to support those in need have fallen short.

You might think that watching an event on television is not the same as living through it, and while that is true, researchers in the United States found that children who watched the multiple replays of 9/11 did suffer mild trauma. In Japan, the footage of the 2011 tsunami first shown live on television was deemed to be so traumatic to viewers that much of it has not been shown again. We accept that children will develop somewhat unusual and irrational fears – in my family it was a fear of talking carrots. It is part of psychological development and our role as parents to is to help children overcome those fears and find healthy ways to move forward. Active listening, calm reassurance, regular routines and distraction from the matter of concern are all strategies that can help children adjust.

Other post-disaster research shows that children looked to adults for how to respond in traumatic contexts. If adults were calm, children were more likely to be calm. What we have learned from Las Vegas and other recent events is that panic and hysteria can lead to further unnecessary deaths by people being trampled on. Adults have a role in modelling how to act and respond.

And to the third point – what can we do to help children prepare for possibilities, real or imagined? Resilience has become a bit of a buzzword and I know that fellow Cantabrians are fed up with being called resilient. There is some truth in their frustration. Researchers in war zones found that while implementing resilience programmes in schools provided some day-to-day coping strategies, it appeared to relieve authorities of the responsibility of having to do more about the cause of the trauma – in that case, years of on-going conflict.

However, for want of a better word, resilience, or hardiness as it is sometimes called, is the term used by psychologists for the ability to bounce back from trauma and return to normal functioning relatively quickly. Resilience can mean it is easier to cope with and thrive after everyday ups and downs. Such resilience is even more useful in very stressful situations. Again, the Canterbury earthquakes showed us that many individuals, organisations and communities that were resilient – that is, had strong networks, connections and relationships and strategies – prior to the earthquakes, were able to respond and recover more quickly. This is why the Earthquake Commission has such a focus on disaster preparedness.

Post-disaster research shows that children looked to adults for how to respond in traumatic contexts. If adults were calm, children were more likely to be calm.

Let’s translate this to the topic in hand – how to help children cope with real and imaginary fears brought about by exposure to the horrors of mass tragedy. What helps children to be resilient? First, having strong and trusting relationships – knowing that someone is there for you and is willing to listen and talk through your concerns; helping you learn from what happened and move forward. Second, having a plan – knowing what to do when the unusual happens. We already teach children about fire safety, stranger danger and safe touching. They practise ‘drop-cover-hold’ and tsunami evacuations. The Manchester bombings reminded us to talk about what do when parents and children get separated.

The advice after the London knife attacks and Las Vegas shootings suggests that the drill in these cases is ‘run-hide-call’: run, crouched down low against shelter, constantly scanning the environment; if you can’t run, hide – under or behind objects that might protect you; when you can, call for help or call to let others know where you are. While this advice might make no difference, what it does do is give you some sense of control in an out-of-control situation. Even if for a few seconds, this stops panic and hysteria and provides the opportunity to think more clearly. It is the best we can offer at this stage.

So, what would I have done on Tuesday evening if I had been with the grandchildren? I would have let them watch a little of the footage to give a context to the conversation that might follow. I would have stopped and started a calm discussion. I might have made a link between what we saw and computer games to lead to a discussion of the difference between fantasy and reality. I might have asked open-ended questions to gauge their reactions, taking my lead from them and deciding whether to drop the topic or continue. I might have reinforced the importance of some of the matters I raised here – but most importantly, I think I would have hugged them and reminded them how much they were loved and no matter what we might face in the future, we’d get through it together.

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