18 Apr 2019

How to talk to children about the March 15 mosque killings

From Are We There Yet?, 11:00 am on 18 April 2019

In the wake of the terror attacks in Christchurch, parents - who are probably suffering distress themselves - face the challenge of explaining to their kids what happened and why. Katy Gosset looks at what they've been saying.

A photo of a young girl sitting with her mother on the couch. It looks like they've been having a serious conversation

Photo: 123rf

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'Three-year-old Sadie* sits on a blanket in North Hagley Park, in the midst of a large crowd. She rustles a bag of chips close to my microphone and clutches her father’s arm.

She is attending the National Remembrance Day following the 15 March terror attacks in which 51 Muslim worshippers died after being shot at two Christchurch mosques.

While she may not be following the speeches from our Prime Minister and members of the Muslim community, her father Michael* says Sadie gets that something big has happened.

“She understands that a number of people have died and it's very sad but also that she’s safe."

Still he's been reluctant to provide too much detail

“She clearly knows that something's going on. It's trying to figure out the right amount to tell her really.”

Seven-year-old Ben* has also been pushing for some answers.

His mother Jenny* says he'd heard that a gun was involved in the attacks.

"He said, ‘Were people killed?’ and we said, ‘Yes.’ Then he wanted to know how many."

She was reluctant to give a specific number.

"He's seven, so 50, he knows that that’s a big number."

A picture of a young mother comforting little crying boy.

Photo: Biryukov Pavel/123rf

Her son also asked why it happened.

"I didn't really know even where to start with that one."

What Jenny ‘ended up saying’ was that a person who was ’really angry" and who ‘hated people’ had carried out the killings.

Because, like all parents, she had to say something.

Clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher said young children initially needed only to hear the basics.

"In this case they need to know that something scary happened, that the grown-ups all did what they were supposed to do. People got hurt and we’re loving and supporting the people who got hurt to help them through this experience.”

Ms Gallagher said simplifying things did not mean minimising what had happened and she warned against glossing over the events.

However, it was important to let children know the immediate danger had passed.

A photo of Catherine Gallagher

Catherine Gallagher Photo: Supplied

“We don’t want to stay in that risky place or that scary place for so long that they think, ‘Actually, does that mean I’m unsafe today?”

She said that kind of worry could prevent the child from moving on and thriving.

Parents could consider limiting access to media for both their own and their children’s sake.

Ms Gallagher also advised people to attend the public gatherings only if they felt prepared for them.

“That message, that to show support, to show communal spirit means you have to be part of all these public outpourings, can be a bit of a dangerous message”.

“You can be there because you think you should but it’s not actually good for you.” 

Catherine Gallagher said it was natural too for parents to feel affected by the attack and to demonstrate those emotions in front of children.

“I think children need to see that we are emotional beings and this was a big deal and it deserves some tears.”

However, she said if parents felt overwhelmed by what had happened they should consider seeking help, both for their children’s and their own benefit.  

She said children needed to know that their parents, or key support people, were still in control.

‘Yes, they can get upset but they’re still going to get up and get me my breakfast or get me to school on time or get grumpy with me if I punch my brother.”

‘[If] those things that would normally happen keep on happening, that helps me feel safe in my world.”

A picture of an emotionally distant father at home ignoring his family

Photo: Iakov Filimonov/123rf

Ms Gallagher said one concern was that many young people had seen the video of the killings that was circulating online.

The footage has been classified by the Chief Censor's Office as objectionable and people found to be in possession of it or sharing it could face imprisonment.

However she was aware of some parents who had previously viewed the video with their children to try to support them through the process.

"This is completely inappropriate because there is nothing about this video that is helpful for the child."

She said, once seen, the images could not be unseen.

Ms Gallagher also believed some parents might not realise their children had watched it and she recommended raising the issue in a non-judgemental way.

"[Say], 'I've heard a lot of kids have seen this’ or ‘I know that you’ve seen it. I'm not angry, I’m not upset that you've seen it. It made sense that you were curious about it.’"

She suggested asking how the video had made them feel.

"What effect is it having? Are there any worries that you’re having because of watching it?"

It was important too to validate any feelings of guilt.

Ms Gallagher said some children had found the footage surreal or that it resembled a game and later felt guilty about watching it when they realised what it was.

A photo of four worried multi ethnic friends watching a smart phone in the street

Photo: 123rf

“All of those responses are completely normal, so a big part of our job is to normalise, to validate the child.”

The discussion could also offer guidance on how to handle other unsettling online material.

“So what were the clues that it was not OK to watch it and what did you feel about it? So what might you do about things in the future?”

Tips for talking to children about the terror attacks

Don't gloss over what has happened but keep explanations simple for young children.

Limit access to media and don't feel the need to attend public gatherings if you're not ready for them.

Ngā Taonga kōrero

Check in with your children about how they're feeling. Wonder aloud about how the experience might have been for them.

Approach discussions about the footage of the attacks in a non-judgemental way, asking how it may have affected your children while letting them know they're not in trouble.

However, don’t encourage children to watch the video if they haven’t seen it.

Show your own emotions about the attacks but keep children safe by demonstrating you're still in control.

If you feel overwhelmed by the attacks yourself, seek professional help so you can continue to support your children.

*Not their real names