Mental Health

How do I talk to my child about tragedy?

Sadly bad stuff happens in life. In fact every day as the news is broadcast across television, internet and other news media sourcesWeb_14; children are seeing and hearing about events that may have them asking questions.

As parents we naturally want to protect our children from tragedy ,however rather than avoiding explanations, or brushing them off with “you don’t need to worry about that“, it’s important to begin conversations with children by focussing on making children feel safe in their immediate world , rather than their fears associated with the events they may have seen or heard.

Some of the best advice I have heard in this area was by a man called Fred Rodgers (an American educator) who once said , “When I was a boy and would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me ,”look for the helpers, you will always find people helping”.

So following on from this valuable advice – looking for the helpers amidst the tragedy, is a good way to begin conversations with children about bad stuff. Initially try and find out what your children already know, they may know a lot or very little about the event, either way it’s a good starting point for conversations. Children may be experiencing a whole range of emotions ranging from fear, anger, or sadness. Using age appropriate language the focus needs to be kept on building their sense of safety and security and making sense of the world around them, whilst at the same time acknowledging their emotions.

So for example a discussion regarding the recent train tragedy in Spain might be:
“A very sad thing happened in a country called Spain where a train was going too fast and crashed into a wall. People were hurt and some people died. But many people were taken to the hospital where the doctors looked after them and made them better. Trains run all the time and this was a very unusual event. Usually trains are safe and fun to travel on. The police are helping to find out why the train was travelling too fast so that we can be sure it is safe to travel on trains again. The police here make sure it is safe to travel on our trains and even keep us safe in our neighbourhood.”

It’s important to focus on all the people who do help to keep us safe. You could mention police, ambulance officers, teachers, and football or netball coaches, even babysitters all keep us safe in different parts of our life. Talking to children about the people who keep them safe and then doing some “what ifs” there was an emergency, who would keep them safe, can reassure and help your child develop resilience.

Why do people self-harm and how should I talk with someone who is deliberately injuring themselves?

Web_25Self-injury is a maladaptive coping mechanism that some people use:

  • To escape from unbearable anguish
  • To change the behaviour of others
  • To escape from a situation
  • To show desperation to others
  • To’ get back at’ other people or make them feel guilty
  • To gain relief of tension
  • To seek help
  • To die

Self-injury can take many different forms which may include:

  • Cutting, scratching, or pinching skin, enough to cause bleeding or a mark which remains on the skin
  • Banging or punching objects to the point of bruising or bleeding
  • Ripping and tearing  skin
  • Carving words or patterns into skin
  • Interfering with the healing of wounds
  • Burning skin with cigarettes, matches or hot water
  • Compulsively pulling out large amounts of hair
  • Deliberately overdosing on medications when this is NOT a suicide attempt

Adapted from Whitlock et al (2006). Self- injurious behaviours in a college population. Paediatrics, 117:1939-1948.

If you are worried that someone you know may be deliberately self-harming, don’t ignore it. Let the person know that you have noticed their injuries, remain calm without passing judgements.

Self-harming is a coping mechanism, so the focus of your conversation needs to be more on relieving the distress, rather than stopping the self-harming behaviour. Self-harming is not an illness in itself but can often be a symptom of either a mental illness or serious psychological distress which needs treatment. Encourage the person to get professional help or emergency medical help if there is a high risk of permanent harm or death.

Adapted from Mental Health First Aid Australia. Non suicidal self-injury: first aid guidelines. Melbourne: Mental Health First Aid Australia 2008.

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