Helping children heal emotional scars

PUBLISHED: 18:00 28 September 2001 | UPDATED: 10:36 03 March 2010

AS adults all around the globe continue to interpret and analyse the US tragedy, our children have been left bemused.

Be they American or UK youngsters, directly bereaved or not, thousands will have been left anxious, uncertain, and upset, by the atrocities.

AS adults all around the globe continue to interpret and analyse the US tragedy, our children have been left bemused.

Be they American or UK youngsters, directly bereaved or not, thousands will have been left anxious, uncertain, and upset, by the atrocities. Debbie Watson reports.

HOW do you tell a child that thousands of people have been killed in an act of hate?

How do you explain that those terrifying pictures are anything but fiction?

How do you make them comprehend the prospect of a harrowing war?

These are the nightmare questions that must surely have plagued many of the nation's adults in the last gruesome days since America's appalling attack.

It was bad enough that any parent should have to explain the hatred that could be seen behind the loyalist protests in Belfast at the start of the school new term.

It was bad enough that mothers and fathers were having to explain the shouting, the taunting and the military presence that was in place on a normally peaceful route to a Catholic classroom.

Through a child's naïve young eye, however, such acts of anger and hate are simply incomprehensible.

In their minds, this latest demonstration of callous terrorism in the US is but an instigator of extended news programmes, the creator of film-like pictures on the TV, the topic at the heart of parental conversation.

It is boring, unnecessary and of absolutely no consequence to their blissful days of youth.

In fact, however much this might have been the consensus of youngsters in the aftermath of the tragedy, experts warn that children are indeed a vulnerable audience at this time.

They suggest that parents would be ill-advised to deliberately ignore the detail of such atrocity.

They claim that discussion and conversation is of paramount importance.

"Very often a child will know a great deal more than an adult will give them credit for," commented Suffolk educational psychologist, Penny Hooper.

"It would be wrong for parents to think that they should sweep these issues under the carpet. Instead, they should try to bring them into the open."

In the case of death, disaster and destruction it is believed that many parents have traditionally felt the need to shy away from conversation with their youngsters.

However, the progress of technology has made even the most gruesome and upsetting news issues more widely available through media sources.

Penny said: "Children are very good at picking up bits and pieces of what is going on. They will have seen the pictures on the television, possibly caught reports on the radio, and seen the photographs in your daily newspaper.

"They will also have spoken about it with their friends in the classroom, so it is a good idea to offer your rational perspective to their thoughts."

She added: "It is worth giving youngsters a chance to have their questions answered more fully.

"They have probably seen snapshots of what is going on, and may feel concerned or upset. It is important that someone can give them a sense of reassurance and try to put their mind at rest."

Penny believes that there is a careful line between comforting your child in the face of the tragedy, and unnecessarily telling them too much detail.

"I don't think you should pretend that nothing is happening, but I don't think they should be left to watch the television and to hear the full extent of the atrocity for hours on end.

"First of all, I would suggest that a parent established what their child already knows, and then I would let them have the opportunity to ask questions of the adult.

"They need to know that they are living a long way from America, and that they are very, very safe in their family homes."

She accepts that some children, specifically those in 'Service families', may show more signs of distress, and that they may need more attention and discussion to help them appreciate the ways in which their parent may become involved in time to come.

In the days immediately after the USA tragedy, much of the support shown to the region's children, came in the shape of the county's teaching staff.

Schools all over Suffolk had quickly prepared assemblies to help their pupils comprehend some of the world's grief, shock and anger.

It was a testing time for their crisis systems.

"Most children were made very aware of the disaster through the television, through newspapers, and through parents talking," said Ann Taylor, headteacher at Whitton Community Primary School.

"Many of our children have relatives and friends in the USA."

She added: "The disaster was a subject for our assemblies, but it was approached in a way that would not upset or frighten pupils. It was taken from an angle of needing to care for each other."

Miss Taylor said the school had acknowledged national displays of grief in the aftermath.

"The whole school took part in the two minute silence, and we have prayed in assembly for the people affected by the disaster."

She commented: "We have tried to emphasise the need to care for each other, to be more tolerant, and to do our bit to make the world a better place."

Ann Hennell, acting headteacher for Whitehouse Junior School, added: "We covered the events in an assembly, and we have also been looking at the wider issues of religion and cultural differences within the classroom topics.

"As time has gone by, staff have been answering questions from their pupils whenever they have arisen. I think it is backing up a lot of what is already being asked within the family home by the children."

And just like Whitton and Whitehouse, hundreds of other schools took similar action to share some level of acknowledgement with their younger pupils.

Penny is not directly aware of any specific cases in which help was required from the Education Psychology Service in the case of America's bombings.

She said that professional assistance would have been granted to individual schools as and where it was needed.

"In the main, I think schools in the region were happy to deal with the situation through assemblies and the like," she said.

"We do go in if we are required, but in this county we like to be wise before the event, and we have a number of systems in place which help teachers and educational staff to deal with all kinds of personal or world-based tragedies."

She added: "It is a matter of appreciating that our children do have their own ways of interpreting events, and dealing with anxiety.

"As adults we have to try to be one step ahead, and we have to be ready to provide their support system."


According to Penny, there are several signs which adults can look out for in their child, to help them establish if they are reacting to a crisis like the one seen in America.

nHas the child's general behaviour changed? Does he or she seem more withdrawn, more anxious or more fractious than usual?

nHas their sleeping pattern changed. Are they unable to sleep. Do they wake up in the night in a distressed state?

nDo they seem to be something from new or more extreme phobias all of a sudden?

nAre they anxious not to be separated from you or your immediate family?

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