A child turning 12 this year holds within living – and televisual – memory the destruction of the World Trade Centre of 9/11, the Madrid bombings, the Beslan school siege, the Boxing Day tsunami, routine reports of suicide bombings in Iraq and the Middle East, and now the London attacks.
A 2003 survey conducted in Scotland by psychologist Rona Dolev at the University of Dundee found that 80% of six to eight-year-olds and 99% of nine to 11-year-olds were aware of terrorism. That percentage will doubtless be even higher since July’s bombings, and the fear and uncertainty that can affect children as a result needs careful handling.
“Everyone’s level of anxiety rises after an event like this, and children will pick that up to varying degrees, depending on their age and how adults around them react,” says YoungMinds training and consultancy manager, Lee Miller.
He advises parents and those working with children and young people to try to get some idea of their perceptions and fears. “They may have a totally different understanding from yours – young children may think there are bombers round every corner. Remember that each child will be different and don’t make assumptions.”
Miller adds: “Anxiety is a normal reaction to a traumatic event. Saying that there’s nothing to worry about won’t help.”
Dr Enid Colmer, a consultant systemic psychotherapist, agrees there is a fine balance between protection and honesty. She says parents and professionals should take children’s worries seriously and not exclude them. “Explain that these events are terrible but rare occurrences. Kids will accept adults’ uncertainty so long as they’re honest.”
Colmer believes that getting children to voice fears is important, but that pushing them to talk can backfire. Where a young person is withdrawn it can be more useful to set up a context for discussion without forcing it. A conversation could begin by asking them how they would feel about it if you were to discuss things with them, or when would be a good time of day to talk.
She urges adults to follow the child’s lead and not have too fixed or formal an idea of how the conversation should proceed. Drawing and writing are also good ways for children to express emotions they may find difficult to vocalise.
Outside the home, circle time or discussion groups at school or youth clubs can provide space for children to share their concerns and be reassured that they are not alone in their feelings.
Recognising this, Camden Council issued a pack for school use in the wake of the London bombings. Including suggestions for assemblies and class discussion, it advises schools to take advantage of their own peer support networks and existing community feeling to promote an atmosphere of calm and tolerance.
It suggests that incorporating positive action into lessons, such as writing letters to parliament and local newspapers, can also be an antidote to feelings of powerlessness and fear.
Above all the pack stresses awareness of the multi-ethnic community. It issues an alert to teachers of the increased possibility of bullying of minority pupils: “Remind students that if one pupil in a school steals a pen, it would be a mistake to call everyone who goes to that school a thief.”
Miller concludes that for most young people, the anxiety will pass. “Occasionally it doesn’t, and if the problem persists over months and starts to interfere with everyday life, that may be the time to seek professional help,” he advises.
‘I don’t want to go back to school’
Kostadinka Grossmith is ChildLine services manager for London and the South East. Since the London bombings, the helpline has counselled 28 children suffering from fear, anxiety and bullying.
“One 13-year-old girl said, ‘I don’t want to go back to school. After what happened, some boys at my school have been shouting at me and calling me terrorist and bomber. It’s because my step-dad is Muslim. But I’m white, I’m not a Muslim and don’t dress like one. I’m just ordinary like everyone else’.
Another caller expressed extreme fear. Her parents had told her to stay at home because it was too dangerous to go outside. One boy reported being bullied at school because everything was worse that day, with so many people fired up and hysterical.
For children who are very anxious, ChildLine counsellors work through the callers’ sensory memories of the event, allowing them to tell their stories and say how they felt at the time. They need to go through it because if it is passed over and another traumatic incident occurs at a later date, those memories can return overwhelmingly.
We praise children for having the courage to call us and for wanting to make sense of things. To help them reach their own understanding, we can make a space for a follow-up call with the same counsellor so that we can gradually debrief them. This is a safe space to articulate feelings about their own culture and others. It can be easier to talk confidentially to someone who is not a peer or a part of the family.”
Warning signs of anxiety