In 1994, the genocide in Rwanda took place. Images glimpsed on our television set left me scared and anxious. My parents shielded us and explained as best they could but they could not control our every conversation. In school and around the neighborhood everybody was talking about the incident. Despite my mother’s best attempts to explain, at the tender age of 8, I couldn’t understand. The atrocities affected the way I viewed the world; I worried I would die that way too.
Even without a direct connection, it’s natural for kids to have questions about what is going on. Helping children to talk about and understand what is going on is of paramount importance at this difficult time.
We interviewed, Dr. George Hu, clinical psychologist at Beijing United Family Hospital and Assistant Director at the hospital’s Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to provide guidance on how to deal with the incident.
The Malaysia Airlines incident has directly affected Beijing citizens, including its expat community. With the fate of the plane still a mystery, loved ones have been told to prepare for the worst. How can parents approach the topic of death with children – especially sudden and tragic death?
It’s often really hard to address such difficult issues with children, especially since we as adults may also have a hard time dealing with sudden and tragic loss. However, we should not avoid the issue. Often, parents are tempted to deny the reality of death, pain, or tragedy to children, but this can lead to more complicated consequences in the long run. Children are going to know that something tragic has happened, especially with regard to an event on the scale as this one, and it is best to allow children an opportunity to express their feelings and ask the questions that they have, and feel that doing so is totally normal and appropriate. As adults, we should listen and let the children know that we are here to help them with their feelings, and to answer their questions.
When children bring up tragic events, I would acknowledge honestly the tragedy that has happened and the death that has occurred, but I would also focus attention on the good aspects of the event, such as the people who helped, selfless acts of sacrifice, or points of safety. Sometimes we focus on the tragedy of an event (and rightly so), but there may be many stories of love, sacrifice, and people helping that also deserve attention, especially to children.
Is it possible for children to feel a kind of second-hand trauma in the wake of an incident like the Malaysia Airlines disappearance?
Yes it is, which is why even though we openly and honestly discuss what happened and allow children to ask questions, I would limit the amount of exposure they are getting to constant discussion about the topic in the media. Allow children to also be children—to hear what has happened, but also to have a break and play and draw and do the things that children do. I would especially keep the children from being exposed to any images related to tragedies.
What are some of the do’s and don’ts of broaching serious topics with children?
-Do NOT make it sound like you are avoiding discussing the topic. Provide an answer you think they will understand that is appropriate to their developmental level. If you don’t know the answer to their question, say so.
-Do NOT make up stories to explain phenomenon, or lie about what happened.
-Do NOT expose children to images of tragedies, or allow them to be exposed to a constant stream of information about the tragedy, such as through the news or internet.
-DO let children know that whatever questions or feelings they have are perfectly natural.
-Do NOT hide your own feelings from children. If you are grieving yourself,
-DO look for signs that children may need additional support. If children exhibit sleep disturbances, excessive anxiety, mood swings, disturbance in appetite, or sudden changes in temper, refer to a qualified mental health professional or talk with your pediatrician or family physician.
-DO allow children to ask any questions that they have, or express any feelings they have. Also, allow them to have no feelings and no questions if that is the case. Give them the time and space to process their own feelings in their own time.
-DO give children an alternative means of expressing their feelings, other than using words. Perhaps they would prefer to draw a picture that represents how they feel, or their reaction to the event.
-DO allow children to ask questions related to spirituality or religion during difficult times, and be open to how they may use spirituality to address the difficult questions that arise after a tragedy.
-DO focus attention on people who helped during the tragic event, or other positive aspects of humanity that may also be present in a tragic situation.
How and when should families explain the concept of death to younger children?
There is no specific how or when, but a tragedy such as this one may present the opportunity, especially as children may have questions that come up naturally. I would suggest not letting this opportunity pass by, but address the issue in an age-appropriate manner.
Beyond their own support networks, what resources or support groups are available to families in Beijing?
Beijing United Family Hospital has set up a hotline number that has been given to the families of the victims of MH370. This hotline offers ready access to a trained mental health counselor, and referrals to other professionals if necessary.
Additionally, there will be a public forum on Thursday March 13 at 6:30PM to address how to cope with the tragedy of MH370. This forum will include a presentation on how to discuss this issue with children, how adults can cope, and will also include a question and answer session. The forum will be at Beijing United Family Hospital, Building 2, 5th floor auditorium.
Photo courtesy of Duniafoto Digital (Flickr)