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Terrrorism: Helping traumatised children

The terror last week at  Westgate shopping mall has affected us all. Parents, schools and communities are faced with the challenge of talking to children about these events.

Parents, teachers and others may be wondering how to do so in a way that helps them process the psychological trauma they are going through.

According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, children can cope most effectively with a disaster when they feel they

• Understand what is happening

• Understand what they can do to help protect themselves and others.

Keeping this in mind, provide children with basic information to help them understand, without including details that may only alarm them.

Basic Info for very young children.

Provide concrete explanations of what happened and how it will affect them (The mall has had a big “owie,” and we won’t be able to go there; The teacher was injured, so you’ll have a new teacher for a while; mummy is sad because she misses her friend).

• Let the children know there are many people (such as the police, Red Cross and other emergency personnel)  working to help them and their community recover.

• Share with them all steps being taken to keep them safe. Children will often worry that a disaster will occur again.

Basic Info for older children

Older children will likely want, and benefit from, additional information about the disaster and recovery efforts.

Always start by asking them what they already know and what questions they have. This should be the guide for your conversations.

While children may benefit from basic information to understand what is happening, they don’t benefit from graphic details or exposure to disturbing images or sounds.

It is good to disconnect from all media and sit down together and talk as a family.

Children and media coverage

• Limit the viewing of disaster coverage by the media.

• Consider recording news programmes so adults can preview.

• Watch with older children to answer questions and help them process the information.

• Be sure to ask children what questions or concerns they have.

Addressing fears

• Often children’s fears are based on limited information or misunderstanding of what they have been told.

• Reassure children when you are able to do so.

• If a child’s fears are realistic, don’t give false reassurance. Instead, help them learn how to cope with these feelings.

Helping them cope with disasters

Adults at home or school can help children learn how to cope effectively. If you feel overwhelmed or hopeless, look for support from other adults before reaching out to the child.

Addressing feelings

Although it does not help children for adults to appear overwhelmed by the event, it is helpful to share some feelings with them. Adults can also talk with children about what they are doing to deal with those feelings.

• Allow children to “own” their feelings instead of denying or pushing them away.

• Let your child know that it is all right to be upset about something bad that has happened.

• Take the chance to talk about other troubling feelings your child may be having.

• A child who feels afraid is afraid—even if adults think the reason for the fear is not reasonable.

Dr Sidney Nesbitt is a Consultant Paediatrician at Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital in Muthaiga.