When Bad Things Happen to Good People: Media, Terror and our Children

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Sitting 3,000 miles away at the end of May, shock and horror was the overriding emotion I was feeling as I read about the Manchester terror attack on the innocent.

As I absorb the news that there has been further attacks on the City of London, my senses flit between the crushing realisation that there are families torn apart, children and loved ones dead and injured and country in shock and disbelief. Our country is struggling to make sense of these recent attacks on civilians not just in isolation but in quick succession.

How can we explain this to our children to help counter the potential trauma of being exposed to content crafted for an adult audience?

Children get their information from teachers, parents, friends and family but they also have access to content via their smartphones and laptops, or indeed their friends’ devices which can put younger children unable to make sense of the information at risk of real stress and anxiety, and then they will find themselves taking kratom in order to control those problems.

This week our children will be returning home from school with a lot of questions, some of which they may internalise and never verbalise. Most of all, they will be seeking assurances that they are safe and loved.

I think of my 7-year-old and 10-year-old children and how their little minds are so incredibly active with curious imaginations running wild and I am concerned about how they will go about making sense of yet another story of terror as the nation weeps and news sources and the public blast real-time updates across social media, radio, newspapers and TV.

We live in a 24/7 world of news and it’s becoming ever more apparent that we can’t shield our children from the scary things that are happening on our doorstep and around the world. From terror attacks, stabbings, shootings, natural disasters and political unrest etc. there is always something that is distressing not only for adults but for children alike. I really worry about how our children will sleep tonight when the ‘grown ups’ who they see as their protectors are visibly shaken and seem so dumbfounded and sad.

As a spokesperson on digital detoxing and technology in the family unit, and as a parent, I have been preoccupied with the concept of breaking down mainstream reporting on atrocities into a child-friendly form. Children across the board are only one click away from news sources and inappropriate content and this worries me greatly, as it would many parents.

In response to this act of barbarity and the ones that have come before around the world and for the ones that will undoubtedly follow, I thought it important to gather helpful opinions from leading psychotherapist Hilda Burke and Ayo Johnson, Journalist who trains teenagers in media making.

Ayo Johnson says “As journalists, we don’t do a good job of explaining such traumatic and sudden events to our most vulnerable citizens.

“And in this age of fake news and normalised terror, parents should do their best to put the news into proper context and be guided by the many questions that their young children will have when such events occur.

“News media compete against each other to be the first with information on a rapidly developing story, leaving a lot of room for misinformation. But avoiding the news is not advisable as then the rumour mill and fertile imaginations take over. Saying to your child ‘we don’t really know yet’ is often the best response as the frenzy unfolds”.

It’s evident that parents need to feel empowered when engaging in these difficult discussions and shouldn’t shy away from difficult conversations as Ayo says, if you don’t know the answer it is perfectly fine to buy some time with ‘we don’t really know yet.

Psychotherapist Hilda Burke comments “Trying to explain an act of terrorism to a child may well be the first time a parent has to address the ‘unfairness of life’. A lot of traditional parenting is based on the assumption that if you behave well, good things will happen. If you don’t, bad things will happen and you may be punished. An untimely death or loss of life due to a terrorist atrocity turns that thinking on its head with very bad things happening to innocent people.

“Explaining that to a child can be very complex and can rupture the simple cause and effect philosophy that was previously instilled in them.

“How to actually explain terrorism is a bit like asking how do you explain God? The approach will vary widely depending on your own beliefs.

“For some terrorism will be explained by the theory that some people are intrinsically bad/evil and because of this they will commit horrific acts. Others will try and explain the complexity of what has led to someone expressing their views via such a violent act. I think the main advice I’d give is to be receptive to any questions your children might have and to hear them out, particularly any fears they have”.

There is no doubt that this is an incredibly confusing and difficult time we are living in and with 24/7 access to news and information, we must do the best we can to keep our children engaged and part of the conversation.

They look to us as their protectors and for answers and it can be challenging when we can’t answer our children’s questions with assurances but I think overall, keeping the conversation open and noticing the subtleties in your child’s behaviour after a big news story is critical in helping us all make sense and keeping us connected.