It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: a Twitter alert that there’s been a violent attack at the venue where your child is attending a concert. That horror came to life for thousands of English moms and dads on Monday night when a suicide bomber set off an explosive outside the 22,000-capacity Manchester Arena near the conclusion of Ariana Grande‘s concert.
The attack left at least 22 dead and 59 people injured — many of them under the age of 16 — and police have named 22-year-old Salman Abedi as the bomber. The first two identified victims included an 8-year-old girl and 18-year-old woman, and it’s feared that the death toll will rise as medical services tend to the many injured, some of whom have life-threatening injuries. Almost 60 people are being treated in eight hospitals in the Greater Manchester area. Sixty ambulances rushed to the arena after the incident, which took place at 10:30 local time at the 21,000-capacity Manchester Arena just after Grande finished her set and left the stage.
Because of the number of young fans at the show, Billboard reached out to mental health experts for advice on how to talk to children about terror attacks and violence and help them feel safe in the wake of such unthinkable violence.
“The first thing I’m big on is not shutting down conversations because they’re difficult,” marriage and family therapist Susan Stiffelman tells Billboard. “We do that when we say, ‘Don’t worry about it, let’s play cards,’ or ‘This is a one-off thing.’ The flip side is you always want to let children lead and respond to their questions, but in this situation you don’t want them to hear from their friends. You want to be the one to deliver the information.”
Stiffelman, author of Parenting With Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids, said it’s best for parents and loved ones to deliver the information about an incident like this so that they can modulate the news and couch it in a context where it belongs: that this attack is a very, very unusual thing that happened at a concert by Ariana Grande and someone who was not right in their mind took out his confusion and anger in a very devastating way and we’re all very sad about it.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has a list of tips (found below) when it comes to speaking to children about terrorism and war that include:
— Listen to them: Create a time and place for children to ask their questions. Don’t force children to talk about things until they’re ready. Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they may worry about friends or relatives who live in a city or state associated with incidents or events.
Also, help children find ways to express themselves. Some children may not be able to talk about their thoughts, feelings, or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing pictures, playing with toys, or writing stories or poems directly or indirectly related to current events.
Answer their questions: Use words and concepts your child can understand. Make your explanation appropriate to your child’s age and level of understanding. Don’t overload a child with too much information. Also, give children honest answers and information. Children will usually know if you’re not being honest.
Events like this can be confusing, so be prepared to repeat explanations or have several conversations about them because some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may be your child’s way of asking for reassurance. One of the most important steps is to acknowledge and support your child’s thoughts, feelings and reactions and let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important.
“A big part of it is really knowing and being able to confirm what the environment is and what kind of security is available,” said Dr. Steven Berkowitz, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “It’s also about being able to tell them what’s been put in place to protect them. That’s what we do to make sure we’re protected and to remind them that despite the headlines these are very rare events and most of their life — driving in a car, riding a bicycle — they’re facing much higher risks of harm and they’re not thinking of giving those up.”
While it’s tempting, don’t make unrealistic promises and avoid stereotyping groups of people by race, nationality, or religion. Use the opportunity to teach tolerance and explain prejudice. Children learn from watching their parents and teachers and they’re very interested in how you respond to events. They learn from listening to your conversations with other adults, so be aware of how you discuss the events around them.
Stiffelman said the mistake most parents make is that they either try to sweep unpleasant information under the rug or they give way too much information. “Kids will let you know… their psyches are wise enough to let them steer the conversation,” she said, adding that concerned parents and family also need to focus on their own “meta communication,” which includes your composure, physical touch and the expression on your face.
“So much of what reassures children is what’s going on between the lines,” Stiffelman said. “They will take cues more from their sense of how you’re feeling about this than the words you choose.”
Provide support: In a world where news is everywhere, don’t let children watch lots of violent or upsetting images on TV. Repetitive frightening images or scenes can be very disturbing, especially to young children. Coordinate discussions between home and school so that you know what is being said in class and teachers are aware of a child’s specific concerns.
Berkowitz told Billboard one of the keys is letting children know that their reaction is totally normal and that we all get worried about these kinds of attacks when they happen, but that in the context of other dangers — such as a car crash — the risk of going to a concert is much, much lower. “This is really upsetting and terrible, we all agree on that,” he said. “The key is life goes on and you have to live your life. Emphasize that one of the reasons these seem like such a big deal and so common is because they make the news, whereas the thousands of car fatalities don’t.”
Another useful tip is that maintaining a predictable schedule and routine is important and reassuring, so make sure to stick to school, sports, birthdays and holidays during stressful times. Watch for physical symptoms related to stress, which may include complaints of physical aches and pains, trouble sleeping, persistent upsetting thoughts, fearful images, intense fears about death, and trouble leaving their parents or going to school, as well as a preoccupation with violent movies or war themed video/computer games. Children exhibiting these symptoms or who seem preoccupied or stressed about war, fighting or terrorism should be evaluated by a qualified mental health professional.
Stiffelman also suggests not using a script when you talk to children who might have fears about going to concerts or being at public gatherings after events like the Grande concert attack. “Do you own work before having a conversation to find your groundedness.”
Most importantly, let kids be kids. They might prefer to play than think or talk a lot about these events, which is fine.