How to talk to children about the Manchester concert attack

Psychologists and other experts give tips to parents and other adults grappling with how to respond to questions from children about attacks like the deadly one in Manchester, England, last night after the end of a concert by American pop singer Ariana Grande.

'Violence can have lasting effects on children,' pediatric academy says after deadly concert bombing

A man writes a message on the pavement in central Manchester following the attack after the concert. (Darren Staples/Reuters)

Parents dealing with how to talk to their children about violent incidents like the attack Monday night in Manchester, England, after Ariana Grande's concert, first need to reassure them that they are safe, psychologists suggest. 

The question children usually ask during violent world events is whether they're in danger, said Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz, a psychologist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.

"You need to tell the truth," Mendlowitz said in a CBC News Facebook Live. "Stay positive. Keep the dialogue open. Acknowledge their fears. Discuss, discuss, discuss. Most people want to shut the conversation, and I'm saying open it up."

We live with uncertainty every day and Monday's event is unusual, Mendlowitz said. 

"If it happened all the time, people wouldn't be on Twitter so much." 

The instantaneous nature of social media in a complicated world are part of what's changed, Mendlowitz said. 

"We cannot live our lives in fear," she stressed. 

Mendlowitz suggested turning the event into something positive, such as :

  • Writing letters of support to affected families.
  • Collecting donations.
  • Talking about what to do if you can't reach each other by cellphone. 

For its part, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement of condolence in response to the Manchester attack that left 22 people dead and dozens wounded — many of them children and young people.

"Pediatricians know far too well that violence can have lasting effects on children, even if they are only learning about it through the media," the group said, also pointing to resources for families.

3 fundamental questions

Children and teens turn to their parents to help them feel secure and to understand world events in terms they can understand, a bit at a time, experts say.

Dr. Gene Beresin is executive director of Massachusetts General Hospital's Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist. After last year's attacks in Brussels and Paris, he noted children need answers to three fundamental questions

  • Am I safe?
  • Are you, the people who take care of me, safe?
  • How will these events affect my daily life? 

But watching violent or upsetting images can be disturbing, especially for young children.

Keep the dialogue open with your children, Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz says. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The American Pediatric Academy suggests sharing basic information with children, not graphic or unnecessary details about tragic circumstances.

For older children who want to watch the news, the academy suggests parents record programs first, and then watch them with their children. That way, families can stop and pause for discussions as needed.

Parents are also advised to be aware of news and graphic images on social media, and to take steps in advance to talk to children about what they might see or hear.

Answer kids' questions honestly, experts say

Showing children how people pull together during difficult times can be helpful. For instance, in Manchester, police, firefighters and paramedics responded to save lives, Mendlowitz said. Individuals offered concertgoers a place to stay, bottled water or a cellphone. 

Parents are encouraged to listen to their children's questions and answer honestly.

"Show willingness to talk about difficult things and use this as an opportunity to reassure them," Winston's Wish said in its response to children affected by media coverage of attacks in England. 

The reassurance should be realistic, Mendlowitz said. "If you tell your child that, 'Oh, this is never going to happen' and then something bad happens, they will not trust or believe you."

Previous guidelines from Canadian school boards have urged parents and other adults to help older children separate what they know from speculation.

Pychiatrists suggest that parents note their natural concerns but to avoid passing their own anxieties on to their children. Rather, parents are encouraged to get support from someone other than their kids.

Psychiatrists and child psychologists generally advise families to maintain routines and to look for signs a child might not be coping well, such as sleeping problems, physical complaints including stomach aches and headaches, changes in behaviour or emotional problems.

"​Your child needs to know there are lots of caring adults around," Mendlowitz said. 

One service that's easily accessible is Kids Help Phone, Canada's national 24-hour, bilingual and anonymous phone counselling, web counselling and referral service for children and youth. 

With files from The Associated Press and CBC's Ioanna Roumeliotis