How Do We Explain the Sydney Siege to Children?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all children could live in safety, be securely attached, never go hungry, never be frightened or know disappointment?  It is what nearly every parent aspires too.  Yet, to guarantee these things children would have to be disengaged from life.

Life for all of us who are engaged in the world will inevitably come with joy and heartache, disappointment and celebration.  None of us will ever be exempt from the challenges and heartache of life while we are alive.

The violent, tragic nature of what has happened during the Martin Place Siege in Sydney has shaken the foundations of all Australians.  The randomness of the victims involved.   Innocent individuals who stopped by to get their morning coffee only to have their world altered forever and has left two loved and valued individuals dead on the week before Christmas. So what on earth do we say to children about this?

Due to the extensive nature and coverage of this event most children of speaking age will be aware that something major has happened.  Children who are well attached to their parents and caregivers will intuitively know by our facial expressions, our concerns and hushed conversations with others that something major has happened in the world.  Most children whether by accident or by choice will have seen some aspects of the footage or will have heard the shooting and news on the radio.  Many children are smart enough and have access to their own technology that they may have simply looked up the siege on the internet.   The majority of parents will hope to protect and shelter their children from this confronting scene that has changed the course of Australia.  However can we realistically achieve this when it is all the whole nation can talk about?

Often a parents desire to ‘protect’ a child from any sort of illness, frightening or sad news has the opposite effect to what is being aspired.  Those of us who are parents know all too well that you can ask a child to come to the dinner table 15 times, to clean their room 20 times only to be told “I didn’t hear you”, however if we swear 20 kilometres away or cry or say something inappropriate suddenly every child in the house has bionic hearing.  Children become far more INTERESTED when we are upset or whisper, they attune themselves to our every word.  If all they hear is bits and pieces they will take what information they have and join it together.  Then they will make sense of this information based on their own understanding of the world and their previous experiences.  So, if for instance, they hear us whinging and moaning about how annoying our partner is – they may equate this to a fear of divorce.  If they hear that there has been a siege in Sydney by terrorists when people went to coffee they may be terrified that all coffee places or cafes may now have bombs.  Children are not illogical – they can only make sense of the world based on the knowledge they have.    For children and adults information is power.  Regardless of what the news is if children are going to hear it, and chances are they will, who do we want them to hear it from and what do we want them to know?  It is much better to hear information from your loved and trusted parent or caregiver than the kid across the road.

My own children had 40 minutes on their own on Monday afternoon in-between the babysitter leaving and me arriving home.  At 10 and 13 years they were glued to the TV when I arrived, watching the siege with curiosity and fear.  When I walked in we watched it for five minutes together, spoke about what it meant for the hostages, for their families, for people in Sydney and for us in Brisbane.  Then I turned the TV off.  We checked in again later in the evening, talked through their concerns and then we did other more relaxing and pleasurable activities as a family to help everyone get ready for bed.  My 10 year old was very concerned about terrorism and our safety.  We talked about all of this really honestly but I kept assuring him it looked like the act of an individual which was very different to a terrorist attack.

I woke early on Tuesday morning and watched the images of the storming of the café and to hear tragically of the death of two innocent people.  When the boys woke I explained to them what had happened overnight.  I let them watch these scenes once (children’s imaginations are far more gruesome and bloody then anything shown in the media), we talked about it as a family highlighting once again that this was not a terrorist cell but an inhumane individual and then the TV went off again for the rest of the day and they headed to a friends for a swim.  Children under the age of 10 often learn and test life through play and talking.  My 10 year old was full of theories about what he would do if held hostage, how he would wait to escape or save others.  Again this is very normal.  It is important to acknowledge these theories, explain that this is also probably what the hostages were doing, state you hope they are NEVER in this situation and then gently guide them to move on to other activities.  Some children depending on their personality or imagination may get more stuck in this phase than others.

When having to explaining any sort of confronting, sad or frightening news there are some important tips to consider.

TIPS FOR TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT SAD OR FRIGHTENING NEWS:

  1. Use clear plain language. Do not use metaphors or too much description. Keep it short and simple otherwise children may become bored and switch off.
  2. Use correct terminology. Eg “Grandma has cancer, it is a tumour or growth in her brain”. Even with very young children this is important because to just say someone is “sick” means that every time anyone has a headache, earache, tummy bug (including the child themselves) they may worry that they will lose their hair, go to hospital etc. Eg: a man is holding people against their will in a café.
  3. Talk to children at a time that works for the children. Often adults are so concerned about telling their children the news that they do it when the parent is ready and prepared. If kids are tired, hungry or watching their favourite TV show the message will be lost and often conflict will arise. Do it when everyone is in a space to hear the news and has time to talk it through as a family
  4. Assure children of what will stay the same. Let children know what will change and what will stay the same, offering as much security and assurance as possible is important. However you still need to answer honestly – if someone may die or leave or the house has to be sold children need to know this information
  5. Do not expect an immediate reaction. Young children, children under the age of 12 years or sometimes older sometimes find it hard to reflect into the future. So news that will impact them in the future, “your brother may has to go to hospital”, “the puppy may only live another 5 weeks”; “we are going to lose our house”, may not impact them immediately. This is not denial. This is developmentally appropriate.
  6. Avoid generalisations.
  7. Do not make promises you cannot keep
  8. What if they ask a question you cannot answer?. Children particular in relation to the siege may ask “could this happen to you/us”. The chances of being involved in a siege are very minimal and children need to know that. However if they ask “could you die” we have to say ‘yes we will all die one day but that most people die when they are very old and if we were ever sick or worried about our health we would discuss this with you”. Children will ask very truthful and confronting questions about spirituality, sexuality and life. If you genuinely do not know the answer or how you feel about a topic ask them their own point of view. Their understandings and insights are often amazing
  9. Children who do not know the truth are at risk. Children if left to their own devices often attribute blame to themselves. To not talk to children means they often have to make sense of their world on their own. They always place themselves in the centre of the story which can be really concerning. Teaching children about how to have difficult conversations builds resilience and good mental health.
  10. Children need messages that they are safe. At the start of any family crisis or situation the CENTRAL message we want to give children is that there are people around who love them and will care for them

Children who know they can fail and get back up and keep trying are more likely to succeed.  Children who are exposed to loss and grief and are allowed to be involved, to mourn and ask questions will be changed though not necessarily damaged by the experience the research is really clear about this.

What happened in Sydney is horrendous, wrong and frightening.  However with clear and open conversations the majority of children will see it as an isolated experience and cope with the information.

Our thoughts and prayers remain with the children and family of Katrina Dawson and the parents and family of Tori Johnson.

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