When bad things happen: Why it's critical to talk to kids in the wake of violence

A surge in violence in Winnipeg over the past three weeks — with nine homicides, including the death of three-year-old Hunter Straight-Smith — has taken an emotional toll on many people, but children can be particularly susceptible.

'We have to talk about our feelings and we need to keep that conversation open'

A memorial of teddy bears, toys, flowers and candles was set up shortly outside of the home on Pritchard Avenue where three-year-old Hunter Straight-Smith was stabbed to death on Oct. 30, 2019. (Dana Hatherly/CBC)

A surge in violence in Winnipeg over the past three weeks — with nine homicides, including the death of three-year-old Hunter Straight-Smith — has taken an emotional toll on many people.

It can be particularly difficult for children trying to make sense of it all, says Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman, a clinical psychologist in the city.

"One of the hardest things is actually trying to explain to children why bad things can happen to good people," he said, adding that, if at all possible, we should protect our children from getting that information in the first place.

The same way parents and guardians protect children from materials they can access online, we should be mindful about the news they consume and limit that exposure, Abdulrehman said, but he acknowledged that's not always possible.

News spreads quickly through social media and can be especially hard-hitting on kids when the tragedies involve youth, as they recently have.

On the weekend, three-year-old Hunter Straight-Smith was taken off life-support and died after he was stabbed multiple times last week while sleeping.

Hunter Straight-Smith, 3, was taken off life support on the weekend after being critically hurt in a stabbing last week. (Submitted by family)

A week before that, a 14-year-old girl was stabbed to death at a Halloween party, and the following day, an infant was among those taken to hospital after a daytime shotgun attack at a home on Flora Avenue.

Once that news is out there, it's crucial to ensure that a child's "norm is not thrown off," Abdulrehman said.

Children are comforted by routine, familiarity and structure, and they need those when it comes to feeling safe, he said.

"When we go through trauma, we lose a sense of control in our environment," he said.

"So when they hear this kind of information, particularly when there's more than one incident or when it's occurring on a large scale — wars or conflict in other parts of the world — we need to bring things back to what their life is like and the reality of them encountering those difficulties."

Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman urges people to talk to children and keep an eye out for behavioural changes if they think tragic events in society are impacting them. (Clinic Psychology Manitoba)

The reality is these violent incidents are uncommon. Even though it might not seem so because of the spike in occurrences, we must remember that it is just that — a spike from the norm, Abdulrehman said.

"So we talk about how this is a sad occurrence but a rare one, and we need to denote that they have a sense of safety," he said.

Children are quite resilient and can bounce back from traumatic news and situations, but it is critically important to have ongoing conversations with them, he said.

"The child may not actually engage in that conversation, but it's important that we offer them the information they need, so their thinking comes back into line and they can attain a sense of safety," Abdulrehman said.

"It's one thing to just say 'You're safe' and it's another one to invite a conversation, because it's that conversation that ultimately gives children a sense of control.

"We have to talk about our feelings and we need to keep that conversation open — not so much that it's always in their face but to periodically come back to the topic: 'Can we talk about how you're feeling?'"

Behavioural problems

Not all children can articulate their feelings, so they might not approach anyone to talk, but there are ways to detect any anxiety, Abdulrehman said.

Children burdened by unease might show behavioural problems that are out of character, such as silence or withdrawal.

"We need to be mindful and watch for those things," he said, noting that everything depends on the age of the child and what they're able to understand.

A memorial for Hunter Straight-Smith, 3, is set up outside the Pritchard Avenue home where he was stabbed multiple times. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

To give children someone to speak to, the Winnipeg School Division is mobilizing its team of clinical support staff — psychologists, social workers and guidance counsellors.

A division spokesperson said the focus will be on schools in the city's core area this week, with expanded support wherever it is needed.

Winnipeg memorial grows for 3-year-old who was stabbed in his sleep

3 years ago
Duration 2:12
A candlelight vigil was held Sunday for Hunter Straight-Smith, who was taken off life support on Saturday afternoon and died shortly after.


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