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Practical advice for parents. How to support our children’s mental health through the aftermath of the attack on Friday

Last night I went onto The Project to talk about how we can support our children during the aftermath of Friday’s terror attack.  You can watch the segment here. As always time was short so I wanted to write more comprehensive information for parents.

As the days pass and more information comes to light here are some practical tips and advice to support maintain your child’s resilience and mental health in the days and weeks to come. Most of it is common sense but often when we are shocked we need help to remember what we already know.

Thankfully, most children and young people will not be that adversely affected and at most might display a bemused curiosity. As ​I mentioned last night, they will mainly be looking to us for clues as to how concerned they need to be about this event. So the first thing we can do is check in with ourselves about our own reactions.

If your child is particularly aware, has heard something in school or are older and you want to be the first person to share information with them, here are some ways in which you can frame that conversation.

Some ways in which you can talk with your child about what has happened:

Younger children don’t need to worry about grown up issues, and we need to take the lead in maintaining their sense of the world as a safe place. When talking to younger children (early primary age) simply be factual in a way that they can understand, for example:

“Somebody did something bad and some people were hurt and some died. The police have caught that person and doctors and nurses have been helping those who were hurt”

Older children and Teens will have access to sources other than us at home and we need to be mindful of what sense they have made of it all from the information that they have come across. Try asking open ended questions such as:

“What have you heard? What do you think about that? How does that make you feel?”

Really listen in to their answer to check that they are responding in a mentally healthy way to the news. You can use this as an opportunity to explore how they have made sense of what is going on and remind them that they can talk to you whenever they have questions.

If Friday’s events have had a significant impact on your child (but they were not directly involved):
Some children may be more affected than others, this is because they may be closer to those who were attacked and see similarities between themselves and them. They may be worried what has happened could also happen to them. If your child needs reassurance give it to them in the form of physical closeness, maintaining normal routines and responding to their emotional needs.

For example: if your child is asking lots of questions about specific details, understand that this is an attempt to try and gain certainty over a very uncertain situation. Try not to get caught up in answering these questions and try saying something like:

“I think you are asking lots of questions because you are worried, that is natural as it was very shocking. I was shocked too. This is what I am doing to make myself feel better and safer (see some tips below)”.

This acknowledges their feelings and also gives them a sense that they can manage them and regain control over their own safety. You need to empathise and be honest but respect that their brains are still developing, and they don’t yet have the ability to rationalise and think things through like you. Your job is to model that scary thoughts and feelings do not need to control us and we have the power to manage them.

Ongoing Media Coverage
Humans tend to seek to make sense of tragedy by poring over the details. There is no reassurance to be found in the details of the attack, only in how we now come together to overcome it.  Therefore, you might need to be more proactive in supporting older children and teens who have access to social media or have more insight to make sense of what has happened and also the continued news and media stories.

  • Talk to your teens about how the media can sometimes use attention grabbing headlines to make you read their news stories, and the implications of doing so.
  • Filter your access to news stories that focus on the outpouring of love and support and exemplify the true Kiwi values of Kotahitanga and Manaakitanga. This is not only good for your children’s mental health and well being but also for yours too.

Regaining a sense of order and control
Terror attacks by their very nature, make us feel powerless and vulnerable. Some people deal with those feelings by getting angry and looking for someone, or some group of people, to blame. Other people become anxious and overwhelmed by this sense of powerlessness. The healthiest way to deal with this is to come together as families, communities and as a nation to stand against the ideals that do not represent us as Kiwis. We have seen many examples of this in the news over the weekend.
Some practical ways in which you can do this are:

  • Attend one of the many vigils
  • Donate to the affected families
  • Learn something about Islam and the Muslim faith
  • Take flowers to a Mosque
  • Write a letter of gratitude to the police force or emergency services who worked to restore order and save lives

Livestream of the attack
Prepare your children who have access to social media and the internet that this material is out there online. Let them know that our brains are not designed to watch material like that without being adversely affected. You might also highlight that each time it is watched we give more power to the perpetrator. Ensure your child knows what to do should it come up on their feed.

  • It’s illegal and restricted material
  • Don’t open it
  • Flag it to the hosting site
  • Report it as violent material

No-one is immune to this, a recording of the live stream came up on my Facebook feed.  I reported it and it was removed within six minutes. This is a small way we can personally restore the balance.

If your child or young person (or even you) have seen the livestream
Talk about how it has affected you. Do not go over and over it in great detail, this can cause more damage than good. Simply acknowledge that you have been exposed to potentially traumatising material and take steps to manage your mental health and well being in relation to this.

You can:

    • Talk through how it feels to have seen this and what you can do to make yourself feel better
    • Speak to a counsellor in school
    • Contact the Mental Health line on 1737

Video Games like Fortnite and Halo
Despite what some media outlets have been reporting, the perpetrator did not undertake this atrocity due to having played violent online games. Whilst there is a multitude of research as to the impact of first person shooter games on the developing brain (which is a separate issue in itself), games like Fortnite and Halo did not cause that person to commit this atrocity, hatred and extremism are to blame.

Remember to access help if you need it
You can:

  • Spend time with your family, friends and community
  • Focus on the good and the love
  • Focus on self care and model this to your child
  • Speak to your child’s school
  • Talk to your GP
  • Contact the Mental Health line on 1737

Kia Kaha

Dr Emma x

NB: This is meant as a general guide for parents and not specifically meant for parents of children who were directly impacted by Friday’s events.

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