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A vigil in Aotea Square, Auckland, today. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
A vigil in Aotea Square, Auckland, today. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

ParentsMarch 16, 2019

How to talk to your children about the Christchurch terror attacks

A vigil in Aotea Square, Auckland, today. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
A vigil in Aotea Square, Auckland, today. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The days ahead will be full of difficult feelings and even more difficult conversations. Louisa Woods writes about how to start and have these conversations with your children.

For many of our children and teens, yesterday dawned full of hope. They stood together, united, passionate, and energised. We saw them reject apathy, counter ignorance, and embrace the power of collective action. Our young people were magnificent in their refusal to let things be.

Last night, it felt like the sun set on a different place to the one we woke up in. The terrorist attacks in Christchurch have had a profound effect on many of us, even though we may not have been directly affected. Our collective innocence has been cracked; the reality of racism and hatred hitting right here on home soil. As we adults grapple with our thoughts and feelings following the horrific acts of yesterday, those of us who have children and young people in our lives are also struggling with how to support them and help them process what has happened and what they may have seen online.

The victims and their families, and the Muslim community here in New Zealand are of course the most in need of care. There are a number of ways we can help, and it is heartening to see such an outpouring of love and support from across New Zealand. We should also be aware that exposure to violent events through the media, and even worse in this case, via the attackers live stream, can cause trauma. Many young people will have seen distressing footage, read about the violence of the attacks, and may have done so alone.

If you havent already, start a conversation about the attacks with your kids. Some of us have the privilege of being able to do this before they hear about it elsewhere because were not in Christchurch or because our children are young. Many will be entering territory their child has already ventured into. Either way, its really important to talk. If a subject becomes taboo, in their minds it becomes even more scary. If they hear about it from someone other than you, you cant control what they hear, or provide support as they hear it.

Let your child talk. Let them feel whatever it is they are feeling, without judgment or trying to minimise their reactions. Its very tempting to try to cheer people up, especially so children and young people. For a start just be present. Just listen.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND – MARCH 16: People gather to lay flowers outside the Botanic Gardens on March 16, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Its also good for your children to know how youre feeling. Many of us are overwhelmed and sorrowful, disbelieving and angry. And with good reason. Feeling all of these things while maintaining control and projecting an air of calm can model a healthy way of working through emotions, while at the same time demonstrating that all sorts of emotion, and mixed emotion, is normal and okay.

Recent research on the impact of caregiver responses to their children seeing violent news media found reassuring realistically” had the best outcomes for children and teens in terms of quelling anxiety. Age-appropriate, honest answers to questions and reminders that in their daily life they are generally very safe can help set young peoples minds at rest.  While we cant promise terrible things will not happen, we can provide reassurance about the systems in place to keep us safe, the people who care for and protect them, and the fact we are fortunate in New Zealand that these sorts of attacks are rare. The response to yesterdays violence was quick and efficient. Teachers and emergency staff in Christchurch were incredible. Pointing these things out, rather than focussing on the violence and the perpetrators is important.

Encouraging a break from social media, or at least from viewing news reports and footage, can also lessen young peoples distress and anxiety. With older children and adolescents, this is an opportunity to talk about why sharing violent and upsetting content can be harmful, in terms of its impact on viewers, but also because it gives terrorists what they want – more exposure, more impact, a greater undermining of our communitys feelings of safety and security.  

Countering feelings of helplessness with practical suggestions about how to help could be useful for young people of all ages. Talk about what they could do to help the victims and their families, to show support for the Muslim community, to foster kindness and tolerance in their schools. A discussion with adolescents about the impact of intolerance on our society and how we can counter those things can give them some tools to address discrimination and racism when they see it, and the motivation to do so, even though it might be hard.

None of us want our children to be distrusting of others, or to think white supremacy and hate are the norm here. But they do need to see how some of the attitudes and messages common to New Zealand society need to be challenged and dismantled.

Our young people had fire in their bellies yesterday. May the injustice and hate and violence of the terrorism we bore witness to in Christchurch stoke that fire further still. Let them wake with hope every day. Let it start tomorrow.

Keep going!