Violent crime, particularly knife crime, is on the rise and the stories are regularly reported in the media, resulting in exposure to sometimes quite distressing reports. When these sorts of events hit the news, it’s important to think about how and what we communicate with children and young people. Remember that all adults are important role models – and so we need to take the lead.
Though we may not always see it first hand – especially as a parent – children and young people are learning from us all the time. This includes how we respond to distressing events in the news. When a major incident occurs it is broadcast repeatedly on news outlets and widely communicated in person and through the internet. Most children and young people will have heard about it, and in some instances, it will be a significant topic of conversation in the playground. Sometimes children – through their own fear or to cause a reaction in others – may exaggerate either the details of what has happened or the danger present now.
It is appropriate and important to let children know that we are all likely to have an emotional reaction to a tragic event. We can show them that feeling sad, angry, confused or upset is normal. However, we also want to reassure and show them that we are able to cope with even the most difficult tragedies. It is also important not to assume that children will see things in the same way as us; if we do, we could inadvertently project our fears onto them. For example, we may be imagining another similar event happening to us, friends or family or in our locality, when they see this as an isolated event.
Some frequently asked questions about how to support children and young people
These are some of the questions that are being asked by those caring for children who have been affected by the media coverage of violent crime.
We have compiled the answers below by drawing on our experiences of supporting children, young people and families who have been bereaved through all types of death, including those which are violent.
How can we best explain this to our children and young people?
Talk to children using words they understand and are appropriate for their age. It’s best to use honest, clear language. It’s probably best to tell children information a bit at a time, giving them the opportunity to come back with more questions. Older children will want and be able to handle more information.
You could start with a general explanation, for example: “This is in the news because it’s very unusual and very upsetting…”. The explanation can be basic, especially for young children – something like: “The police are still trying to work out what happened but it seems as if someone did a very bad thing and hurt some people so badly that they died.”
Be honest and open
We can naturally worry that by talking about tragic events we can trigger fears or make children think they are more likely to happen. However, we have learnt that ‘not talking about’ something as important as people dying or being killed is more likely to have the effect of increasing anxiety and confusion. There are two main reasons for this:
– Children may imagine – or have heard – more frightening and inaccurate stories about what has happened and/or will happen in the future.
– Not talking about an important event gives the implicit message that this is something we cannot manage and should not talk about.
The way in which we talk about tragic events can convey a lot; children will be reassured by a straightforward, matter-of-fact tone than the actual used so whilst acknowledging sadness or upset, we want to be calm and reassuring. Where appropriate, point out that the police or other emergency services are acting to make things safer. When talking about death by homicide, it is helpful to talk about people doing ‘bad things’ as opposed to ‘bad people’.
Age appropriate needs
Younger children (three to six years) – At this age, children primarily need to hear and to feel that they are safe and secure. Ideally parents and carers will keep calm, reassure about physical safety and help children to understand their emotional reactions.
Seven to 12 years – In this age range children will be increasingly active users of media. They may be exposed to information before they have adequate life experience to place it into context. They may have questions about good and evil and think about the long term consequences. They may need help integrating this experience into a balanced view of the world and the risks of life. They will need comfort and reassurance and they will appreciate having their own thoughts, feelings and questions taken seriously.
Adolescents – They may be media aware and have access to more forms of news than parents and teachers. However, they may get distorted information or form very superficial black and white views of events. It can also be hard to know whether they are impacted by events because they often do not communicate distress or worry to adults. They are likely to value clear information and modelling from parents or teachers, even though they may not show it outwardly. Often it is helpful to talk about your own experience or other people’s thoughts and feelings as a way of validating their experience without them feeling exposed or vulnerable.
Should we stop children and young people watching television coverage or seeing the newspapers?
Most stories in the news involving a death will be upsetting; this is particularly true if a child can imagine something like this happening to them or someone close to them. The temptation is to try to prevent them hearing about it. However, because other children will have heard the news, it is better for your children to have the opportunity to ask questions and receive reassurance from people they trust. Your judgement of what your child can understand is very valuable. If your children are used to watching and discussing the news with you, they may be able to watch an early news bulletin with you beside them.
Encourage children to ask questions about what they are seeing and then answer them as well as you can. We know that we cannot shield children from these painful events and that attempting to do so can have negative consequences. No child has ever told us they were glad someone lied to them about a death. However, there are studies that show that repeatedly seeing tragic events may have negative psychological consequences.
What should I say about the person / people who did this?
It’s really hard to be calm about something this terrible, but, if you find it possible, try and distinguish between bad acts and bad people. Children find the idea of bad people particularly frightening and will be reassured to know that the person who carried out this act has been arrested. Older children will appreciate details and the opportunity to explore why people do such terrible things and how the families are feeling. This can be an opportunity to help young people develop their empathy and reflect on the value of life and relationships. When appropriate, it can be reassuring for children to know that perpetrators have been caught or have died.
How can I answer when they ask ‘why?’
If children want to know ‘why?’ you could say something like: “No-one can completely know why. We know it wasn’t an accident. It’s so difficult to understand why anyone would be so cruel as to kill or hurt other people.”
My children are asking lots of questions about death. What should I say?
It is normal that children, like adults, will try and make sense of this in their own way. They will need the support of adults to do this. If you feel you can, be honest and try to avoid euphemisms (e.g. say ‘died’ not ‘gone away’). This will avoid confusion, build trust and reassure children that it is okay to talk openly about difficult things. You could say something like: “What seems to have happened is that someone did something that hurt a person / some people so badly that they died. Their body stopped working because it was damaged so much that their heart stopped and their brain stopped so they died.”
Some children may be interested and want to ask questions, others may be upset and want information or reassurance than this is unlikely to happen again, and others will want to play or do something else – all of these are perfectly natural reactions. If it does lead to more questions about death and dying, and about what happens after death, for example, “does it hurt?”, you should try to answer as precisely and honestly as possible, e.g.: “Nothing hurts when someone is dead; their body can’t feel pain.”
My children are now scared that I – or they – will die
It is natural that children will question whether this might happen where they live or to people they know. When violence is reported in the media, young people may temporarily lose their sense of security. They may ask questions such as “what would happen to me if you were killed?” Try to answer with some solid reassurance, such as: “If one of us died for any reason, you would always be looked after by ______ (the other parent/aunt/uncle/granny/family friend). But I have every intention of living for a very long time.”
There are good story books for younger children that address death and provide an age-appropriate way to handle these sensitive but important conversations. Children who are concerned will appreciate a lot of reassurance and maybe more hugs than usual. Keeping a reasonably normal routine going will help them feel secure.
Will talking about it open a can of worms?
Conversations about events like these can be difficult and upsetting but afterwards you’ll probably feel relieved that you were able to be honest and build trust. Sometimes adults feel they shouldn’t get upset in front of children but, in fact, this can be really helpful to show children that it is OK to have a range of difficult emotions.
Families and professionals sometimes talk of their reluctance to ‘open a can of worms’ and risk traumatising children by talking in detail about death, especially when it has been through violence. In our experience, it is better for children to release the ‘worms’ in a safe and steady way. This can help children feel in control of all the wriggling emotions, questions and anxieties that can otherwise eat away at them.
How much does my child understand what is being said?
Children’s understanding of death and loss develops as they grow. Little children on hearing that somebody’s brother has died, for example, may wonder if he can still play football on Friday – being ‘dead’ to a child under five means about the same as being in another country. Older children may talk about death without completely understanding that death is permanent, happens eventually to everyone and has a cause. Check that children have understood your explanations.
My son keeps play-fighting, pretending he’s killing someone? Is that normal?
Yes, it is. Children use various ways of trying to understand what has happened; one common way is to act out the scene with toys or other forms of pretend play. It is different from the way that adults cope, so it may seem that children are acting too flippantly, too casually in the face of tragedy. What they are doing is trying to understand. Children respond to grief in different ways than adults too – for adults, grief feels like a river you have to slowly wade through – or a vast sea and you cannot see the shore. For children, grief is more like puddles that are jumped into and out of quickly.
My little girl won’t let me out of her sight – what can I do?
This is another common reaction to death, loss and high profile tragedies – children may fear that if something has happened that can’t be explained, then anything can happen. With patience and extra reassurance, she will hopefully regain her confidence. Simple explanations will help, as can children’s story books which explain death and the feelings it causes (see Suggested Reading Lists at www.winstonswish.org). A loved toy from younger childhood could be comforting, and worry dolls and dream-catchers can help to ease night-time worries. If you would like to talk to someone for advice, you can call the Winston’s Wish Freephone National Helpline on 08088 020 021.
How long will children and young people be affected?
Tragic events in the news, especially when there are tributes to the person or people who have been killed and thoughts about their family, will affect everyone. They are particularly painful and poignant for those who have experienced a bereavement who both identify with those who have just been bereaved and are also taken back, emotionally, to the raw feelings of their own bereavement. For such families, it may feel that your own previous experience of bereavement has only just happened. It will help to talk to each other about how you are feeling. Don’t feel you have to bottle up your feelings to protect the children – it’ll help them to know that you are finding it hard too. You may find it helpful to talk things through with a friend or one of the organisations listed at the end of these questions and answers.
The answer for individual children is also a very individual one and will depend on other losses and bereavements the child may have experienced. Non-bereaved children may only be interested and not affected. Children shouldn’t be made to feel that they ‘have’ to feel upset about events and people they do not know.
In school, what do we do if the pupils are role-playing murder or death scenes?
Children communicate a lot through their behaviour and play, particularly when things are confusing, distressing, out of the ordinary and they lack the language to describe what they have seen, heard and how they are feeling. This is a normal and healthy reaction. Rather than ignore or sanction the behaviour, you can use this as an opportunity to talk openly about death and dying. This can be done by drawing, writing poetry, circle time discussions, or other creative activities. It can be an opportunity to acknowledge other bereavements and losses in the school community and provide a vehicle for bereaved pupils to feel supported by their peers and teachers. It is estimated that in Britain there is, roughly one child per classroom bereaved of a parent or sibling, and that approximately 110 children are bereaved of a parent in the UK every day. Individual conversations with children who have been bereaved, during times of high profile coverage of deaths, can be helpful. Give them choices about what level of support and acknowledgement of their experiences would feel right for them.
Winston’s Wish produces many resources to help schools and teachers, including school bereavement strategies, a schools’ information pack, and lesson plans about death and dying. These are all downloadable from the ‘support-for-schools’ section of the Winston’s Wish website www.winstonswish.org. We also offer training for schools – information about our child bereavement training days for professionals can also be found on our website.
Things to remember
- Talk to children using words they understand; give information to younger children a bit at a time
- Try and encourage children to ask questions
- Answer questions honestly and simply; talking about it won’t make it worse
- Accept that some things can’t be ‘made better’
- Show willingness to talk about difficult things and use this as an opportunity to reassure them
- If children are asking questions, it is a good thing – it shows they trust you and it is better than keeping questions and worries to themselves
- Remember that ‘super parents’ or ‘super teachers’ don’t exist. Just do and say what you can
- Don’t be afraid to show children how you are feeling
There may be instances where you feel that you need to seek extra support. Winston’s Wish has a Freephone National Helpline (08088 020 021) available to call between 9am and 5pm Monday – Friday, as well as an email support service available through our website (www.winstonswish.org) and a new online chat facility for instant messaging. We also produce a wide range of publications to support children of different ages and with different types of death, which are available from the website.
Winston’s Wish provides guidance, support and information for bereaved children and for anyone caring for a bereaved child or young person, as well as specialist therapeutic support to those children and young people who have been bereaved through murder or manslaughter, suicide or military families who have experienced a death.