How to help your children cope after the Easter terror attacks
Dr Miyuru Chandradasa, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Colombo North Teaching Hospital, answers some very important questions.
April 21, 2019 will go down in history as one of Sri Lanka’s darkest days.
On Easter Sunday morning, terrorists launched a vicious, well-organised and deadly attack on hundreds of innocents in churches and hotels around the country. Hundreds died, many more injured and families were ripped apart. The dead have now been laid to rest and Sri Lankans everywhere are still reeling from the horror of what happened.
There is one extremely vulnerable section of society that has perhaps been the most affected by the Sri Lanka Easter attacks: our children, the first “innocent generation.”
Over 40 little ones died. More were injured. Others saw their parents, siblings, loved ones and friends die. They saw them bleed and cry, and did not understand why.
Those children who were not at the attack sites are also affected. They’ve mostly been under house arrest because we, their parents, are too afraid to venture out with them. Our children who have never experienced bombs, gunfire or terror attacks, now know them. They hear the anxiety in our voices and see the fear on our faces. They watch the news and try to make sense of what happened. They might not be physically injured but the emotional, psychological wounds are deep.
Sri Lanka terror attacks: Helping our children
To make sure that Sri Lankan parents can heal their children’s psychological wounds as best as possible, I spoke to Dr Miyuru Chandradasa, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Colombo North Teaching Hospital.
I asked him questions related to how to talk about the attacks with different age groups of kids, signs of trauma parents should know, what to do if a child is severely affected, and more.
Below, Dr. Chandradasa shares his extremely useful answers to my questions, so that parents and other caregivers can better help their children cope and heal.
*The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
1. What’s the best way to explain what happened to:
– Toddlers and Preschoolers: 2 to 6 years
Try your best not to expose such young children to news of the attacks. If possible, discuss these violent events after your children have gone to sleep. If they are not aware of the attacks, you may not have to introduce new information to them.
If they are knowledgeable and inquisitive, tell them that they are safe, the family is secure, and you will do your best to protect them. Observe their sleeping patterns. A change may indicate possible anxiety in them. Please encourage them to engage in their usual play activities.
– Primary and Middle Schoolers: 7 to 12 years
Parents need to be vigilant about children of this age, and watch out for changes in sleeping patterns and other signs (discussed later). Before talking to them about the terror attacks, decide and choose only the information that is suitable to share with them, based on their age and general sense of understanding about matters.
You might have to exclude many gruesome details. Give your children the chance to express their feelings and thoughts. Listen carefully and attentively to your children.
Please be honest when you give them information as you don’t want to lose their trust in you as a reliable information source.
Tell them that the culprits are never heroes and essentially evil people. Discuss potential sensationalism. However, be careful not to encourage stereotypes. Spending time with them and listening to their concerns is very important.
– Teenagers: over 12
They may already know a lot about the attacks. However, their sources of information may be unreliable, such as social media, rumours from peers and specific websites. Ask them about what they know, listen to them, then explain the facts kindly and rationally.
Please help them to understand that there is a deeper socio-cultural meaning behind these events. Support older adolescents to look beyond what is shown on the news. Please do not encourage pessimism and negativity about the country. For example, do not say “this country will never be safe.”
Instill hope of a stable country and a safer society. Depending on the security status of the country, allow them to return to their usual routines quickly. Meanwhile, watch out for new onset of irritability or change in behaviour, which could be a sign of underlying psychological distress in adolescents.
2. What are the ways in which the terror attacks could potentially affect Sri Lankan children?
Many mental health studies have reported a significant increase in psychological morbidity after the occurrence of mass trauma (bomb blasts, shootings, natural disasters, etc). An increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders has been reported following such incidents.
Children especially are highly likely to develop post-traumatic symptoms after witnessing violent events, including bomb attacks. This has been found after psychological studies conducted after bombings in other countries.
Within this context, those who directly experienced the violence of the Sri Lanka Easter attacks and their loved ones may potentially experience psychological trauma.
Child mental health research has shown that even when children are exposed indirectly to such violence, that they could experience psychological trauma. Studies show that they may develop anger and intrusive thoughts related to the events.
As Sri Lankans, we have experienced mass violence on many occasions in the last few decades. Parents today, were exposed to the cruelty of the war as children in real life and through media.
However, today’s children in Sri Lanka have not experienced such atrocities due to the relatively stable and peaceful past decade. Therefore, many Sri Lankan children who saw images and videos of the blasts could be significantly affected by them.
Parents, teachers and other caregivers have a big role to play in this aspect to support children after the attacks.
3. What are some of the most common signs of trauma in children?
- Sleep disturbance, reduced sleep and nightmares
- Difficulty in concentrating on school work
- Persistent sorrow
- An intense fear that these incidents would recur
- A sudden need to to be alone
- Repetitive, intrusive memories and images related to the violence
- Lack of enjoyment in their usual activities
- Persistent headache and other bodily aches that are not physically caused
- Easily startled and the feeling of being on edge.
4. What are some less common signs of trauma in children?
- Multiple physical symptoms such as abdominal pain, persistent headache and body aches that have no diagnosable physical causes.
- Long-term psychological consequences such as poor self-esteem, extreme frustration and unresolved unconscious conflicts leading to expressed anger and verbal or physical aggression.
5. What should parents do if their children show any signs of trauma, or are affected by the terror attacks in any way?
On most occasions, parents and teachers should be able to provide the necessary psychological support and safety for such children. However, you might have to consider professional help if your child is demonstrating significant symptoms of psychological trauma such as those described above.
In such cases, you could:
- Seek the professional expert opinion of a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
- Head to your closest teaching hospital, general hospital or base hospital and ask for the Child and Adolescent Guidance Clinic or a psychiatric clinic. You could obtain support and guidance from these units.
6. How can parents make their children feel safe and reassure them?
Emotional validation is of utmost importance in a crisis like this. To do this, listening to the child’s concerns and addressing their questions is essential.
Always, the physical environment needs to be stable without undue disruptions of children’s activities.
Encourage your children to go back to their usual daily routines as soon as possible, depending on the safety of the neighbourhood. Tell them the family is safe and you will protect them.
7. How should parents prepare their kids to return to school?
- Children need to be told that their school environment will be changed due to the Sri Lanka Easter attacks.
- Explain to them that this means more measures will be taken for their safety at school and related to transport.
- Tell them that this could cause anxiety and that this feeling is natural, given the situation.
- Also, tell them that Sri Lanka has gone through harder times in the past and the country will be safer soon.
- All children need to be told that people have different physical and psychological attributes. We are different from each other in their height, weight, skin colour and facial appearance. Likewise, children and families have unique religious beliefs and cultural practices. All these differences make us a stronger community by encouraging various character strengths. It is like in a cricket team, where some can bat well while some can bowl.
- Tell your children to remember that what they say, do or indicate could hurt another person. Explain that most Sri Lankans are highly emotional at this moment and even little comments could hurt deeply due to the communal mental state.
- All children should be told that they should not come to robust judgments of their friendships with children of other faiths.
8. How should Muslim parents handle backlash against their children at school, should this happen?
The first thing to do is to inform the class teacher. Allow your children to share their emotions with you at home. Reassure them that these reactions are related to the current situation in the country and are not their fault.
Since this is a very complicated psychological and socio-cultural situation, do not hesitate to seek professional child mental health opinion when necessary.
9. Naturally, many (if not all) Sri Lankan parents are worried. How should they deal with their anxieties?
- Accept that this a massive setback for the country and society. Address any denial of the implications. However, talk to each other, friends and family to express your concerns.
- Remember how you, the community and the country dealt with similar situations in the past. Talk about how Sri Lanka overcame significant challenges like this in history and how you contributed to the healing process when you were younger.
- Take time off from news, social media and the internet. Listen to your favourite music, watch videos of your family, or engage in religious ceremonies.
- Meditation (anapanasati – mindfulness of breathing) can help a lot.
- Spend more time with your children and families and use distractions such as board games.
- Never hesitate to seek the help of mental health professionals if needed.
Here at theAsianparent Sri Lanka, we mourn along with all Sri Lankans at the senseless loss of life. At this difficult time, one thing is clear: we must have hope and rise stronger than ever.