Police at the scene of the attack at LynnMall on September 6. Photo: RNZ/Chen Liu

Children can be affected in different ways by something like last Friday’s terror attack. Carol Mutch has some tips on how to help.

In 2019, the country faced the unimaginable atrocity committed in Christchurch against Muslims practising their religion in what should have been a safe and hallowed place. Last Friday, another terrorist attacked innocent civilians as they went about their shopping in a local supermarket.

First, it is important to acknowledge the ongoing trauma and pain faced by the 2019 victims and their families. Second, it is important to send our best wishes for a speedy recovery to the victims of Friday’s knife attack and our thoughts to the witnesses and supermarket workers at LynnMall.

It is also important not to turn our shock and horror into unnecessary verbal and virtual attacks on our fellow citizens, especially as it sets the tone for how children will think it is appropriate to respond, when it clearly is not.

So how might we help children process the events?

It is important that adults think about the messages they are giving by their responses. If adults can stay calm and measured, children will take their cues that this is how to respond.

Having said that, it is appropriate to show your own response in a manner that works for you – and this might be made more difficult by our current lockdown circumstances as you are unable to talk to or hug friends and family as you might have. Try to find something that calms you – going for a walk, quiet tears, finding a creative outlet or doing something practical to help. Explain to your children why you are feeling sad and what you are doing to help yourself move through this stage.

Try to keep your viewing of events on media and social media to a minimum while children are around. Model to your children that you have ways of coping. One way of coping is to think about others – what can you do to support or help someone else?

It is hard to give hard and fast advice about how to help children because, as with adults, they might all respond differently – even within one family. However, here is some advice that works for most situations that you can adapt if you need to:

  • Acknowledge that the event did happen. Don’t cover it up but give out only as much information as is appropriate to the child’s level of curiosity and understanding. Your account should be accurate but doesn’t need to include distressing or unnecessary information.
  • In the case of the knife attack, remind them calmly that the event is now over. Don’t say it will never happen again but say that we can learn from what happened here and try to prevent it happening again.
  • Focus on some of the good things that happened – the quick response of the public and police, and that the offender was quickly stopped from preventing more harm.
  • Remind them that in a future event, there are many people who will help. In this case, the police were just outside, people nearby stopped to help those who were hurt or comfort those who were upset. Ambulance drivers took the injured to hospital and now they are being cared for by medical staff.
  • Watch how your child reacts – it may change from day to day and over time. One child might be very emotional and then move on – another might be very quiet but then display unusual behaviour at a later date.
  • Regular routines are helpful. While you might relax routines, such as bedtimes, when children are highly distressed, try to re-introduce those routines as soon as possible and teach them strategies that will help calm them down when they feel upset.
  • Keep children away from television news and social media. Research from the US found that some children who repeatedly watched the 9/11 planes crashing into buildings ended up with a form of mild post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • It is important that children do not keep revisiting the matters they find distressing. Try to distract them with other activities, favourite toys, happy conversations or an occasional treat. Remember that getting them to help others is an activity that takes them out of themselves and is helpful for their recovery.
  • Expressing creativity through art and craft activities, singing, playing and listening to music, poetry and story writing, drama, dance, play and physical expression are all ways in which children can immerse themselves to process their feelings safely.
  • Don’t force children to discuss the events. Often the conversations they have and questions they ask while they are absorbed in another task can be very valuable because you get an insight into what they are thinking without re-traumatising them.
  • Some children might be already anxious due to an earlier traumatic event or the disrupted routines from lockdowns or worry about Covid-19. Sometimes a new event can bring some of those concerns to the surface unexpectedly. Observe their behaviour and use your calming and distraction strategies.
  • If your child has been strongly affected, they might exhibit behaviours unusual for them – clinginess, bedwetting, withdrawal or anger. Keep calm but if these behaviours continue for a prolonged period or start to impact on the regular family life, it might be time to seek help. Start with your GP. They can refer you on from there.

A traumatic event, such as the LynnMall knife attack, can be distressing for those involved, and those at a distance. It is a time for telling your family that you love them and that you are there for each other. It is also a time to have a plan for unexpected events. A practical task could be to update contact details and talk about where to go for help or support. Having a plan lessens anxiety and gives a sense of control in case of another emergency.

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