After Creeslough, here’s how to help children make sense of awful tragedies

The explosion at a filling station in Creeslough at the end of last week is a rare tragedy. That so many were injured and died is very hard to accept. Many children will be as shocked to hear about it as you or I might have been. Its apparent randomness may make it more meaningful and more distressing for those children who have become aware of it.

t has been just over a month since I wrote about how the murders of children in Tallaght may have impacted other children who had read about, or heard about, that tragedy. All that I wrote in that article will be valid in supporting your own children with coming to terms with what happened in Creeslough.

The essence of what I wrote is that the first step to supporting a child who may be distressed about any tragedy reported in the news is to establish what they know about the incident. It helps to clarify any aspects that they may have picked up incorrectly, or any misinformation that they might have heard.

Then you need to work out what meaning the incident has for your child, such that you can try to validate their feelings about what has happened, as they perceive it. Helping them to express their feelings about what they understand to have happened is the key to helping children to process those feelings. Usually this requires the adult to empathise, perhaps using educated guesses about how the child feels.

Once we too understand how they feel, we can then help them to regulate the intensity of those feelings. That regulation may be as simple as a hug to let them know that they are safe and in no danger, or it may be that you need to reassure them about the likelihood of a similar tragedy befalling them or you.

What may differentiate the explosion in Creeslough from the murders in Tallaght is, perhaps, the fact that most children will have entered the shop of a filling station, whereas not every child may feel they are at risk of being killed within their own home. Consequently, the reporting about the Creeslough tragedy may lead more children to feel that they now are more vulnerable to something equally awful happening to them or their family.

For example, does the fact that other children and teenagers died make it seem more relevant? Or does the “normality” of the situation just moments before the explosion, with people going about their business in the shop of a filling station, mean that your child now feels more anxious about being in everyday situations?

Some research has demonstrated that “local” news stories have more impact on children’s sense of vulnerability than news reports that seem about far-off or distant places. News reporting of an explosion in Ireland is more likely to resonate as a “dangerous” thing than, for example, reports of explosions in war-torn countries like Ukraine.

The apparent random nature of the explosion also makes it hard to be able to reassure children that something of this magnitude and horror won’t happen to them. Last week very few children may have feared being involved in an explosion. This week many more children may now fear this as a possibility, and we cannot give cast-iron guarantees to our children that something similar couldn’t happen to them or us.

Again, research has shown us that when news reporting of a story or incident is pervasive and extensive, it can markedly affect our children’s (and our own) perception of how likely such an event is to occur. This can mean that children may feel unnecessarily threatened, unsafe or fearful because they are overestimating the likelihood of being caught up in a terrible explosion.

So, after we have talked with our children about their feelings, perhaps working out that they feel quite vulnerable to something similar happening to them, we have to find the words that can help them to feel reassured that the probability of something so awful happening again is very low.

You may find, however, that they don’t seem able to hear your reassurances. No matter how much you might talk about the low probability of such a tragedy occurring again, your child may still remain caught up in their anxiety. You may have to spend a bit more time focused on their feelings, giving them more opportunities to talk about their fears, before trying to assuage those fears. Remaining calm and confident with your child, will also help them to feel reassured, since many children, especially young children, take their lead from their parent’s manner.

While the majority of your thoughts, prayers and feelings may be directed towards the families of those people who were killed or injured at the weekend, do spare a thought for your own children, as they may need your steady, guiding hand to help them make sense of this awful tragedy.

Belfast Telegraph