Discussing these terror attacks with children

I will start by giving my personal experience with my 7 year old daughter.

4.30pm 15th January, 2019 I got home from work earlier than usual.  I then decided to take a look at my phone and landed on my work WhatsApp group…. Explosion and gunshots on 14 riverside drive, keep away from that area. A whole discussion followed with pictures, videos and so on.  I was getting more and more agitated as my family members started calling to ask if I am safe….

5pm: My daughter arrived from school in her van. I opened the gate very fast and hugged her abnormally tight. She looked up and said….

Child:Mum you are being weird

Me: No, I just missed you and was home early today

She looked at me and she could see that I was balancing tears. I had just watched one of those videos being shared as Facebook live and my heart was still racing…

Me: Ok. There has been a bomb and gunshots somewhere in Westlands and I am glad you are home safe.

We got into the house and I switched the TV to a musical audio channel. We did her homework, then tried out a home sewing activity (pictured), had dinner, took our baths and I put her to bed. I avoided looking at my phone though it was bugging me until she went to bed at 7.30pm.

I remained glued to a local TV channel and my twitter account thereafter, watching all the updates until around 11pm when the CS Hon Matiangi gave a press briefing. All I wanted to hear was we are safe and he said it repeatedly. I am a psychiatrist but this time I didn’t evaluate his body language because I just wanted to believe his words for the sake of my own sanity.  I thereafter went to bed.

7am 16th January, 2019 as I am driving my daughter to school…………………….

Me: I know your friends will be talking about the attack yesterday at school.

Child: I do not want to talk about bad people mum.

There is silence in the car and she is staring blankly. She is the type who reads newspaper headlines from the vendors selling the paper in traffic. Slowly I realise she is worried about something and doesn’t want to discuss it. She is generally a very talkative and expressive child therefore silence struck me as strange.

Me: Why are you quiet? What are you thinking about?

After a few minutes

Child: – Mum, how many people have died? Are there some in hospital?

Turns out she overheard some of my telephone conversations the previous night.

Me:- I am not sure, but do you even know what happened?

Child: Not really. It is just what you said yesterday. Some bad people had a bomb and others were shooting at people in Westlands.  But are the people who were shot better? Have they been taken to the hospital?

Me: Yes. They were taken to hospital and I think most of them are safe.

Child: How many died?

Me: I do not know. I haven’t watched news this morning or looked at my phone but everything happens according to God’s will.

I then realised I was just pleasing myself and she was not buying it. I also didn’t know the updated facts by then. We were still waiting for the president’s official communication and numbers. Unfortunately for me,she repeats herself.

Child: Mum, it is a very important question for me. How many people died?

Me: I am also not happy with this whole story but I will watch news, read the newspaper, check twitter and then tell you the whole story in the evening in a way that you can understand.

Child: How can it be God’s will that good people are shot? I think that is satan’s plan.

Me: Yes, it is satan’s plan but he will be defeated.

Child: – What if they die? Why have good people been injured?

The psychiatrist in me suddenly wakes up and I realise if I do not handle this well my child will develop fear.  I am a Christian but not a theologian thereby the route I was taking was not really my speciality. The same emotions I am trying to fight as an adult are the same emotions (anger, fear, sadness) that she is experiencing or worse. I cannot avoid this discussion and I should not avoid it no matter how uncomfortable I was getting.  From my practice, I know children read fear in adults and I have to be well if I am going to save my child or at least give her the best chance at getting past this challenging issue we are facing as a country.  So I have to recover, be a parent, an affected Kenyan and a psychiatrist all at the same time. The one thing that affects people is the sense of feeling unsafe. So I asked myself whether I truly felt safe. I tried to remember how I resolved my anxiety the previous night so that I could sleep and began once more….

Me: –  You know all these things are happening in a place far from us in Westlands.The world has a few bad people but most are good people. There were so many ambulances, nurses and doctors in that place.  Last night I stayed up very late because I was very concerned and thought I might be called to work. I also wanted to understand what was going on so that I am not scared. Do you know of a man known as Matiangi?

Child: Yes of course mum, I know him from TV

Me: He is the boss of all policemen and security people. I had to wait for him together with his people to finish their work and then talk to us. He said that they have caught all the bad people and saved all the good ones. (A little exaggerated I know).  The ones who are injured have been taken to hospital and are being treated and given painkillers so they won’t feel pain. He said we are safe. Kenya is safe and we should go about our business as normal and I believe him. He is very strong and strict much more than your class teacher.

I could see a sigh of relief on her face as I turned (we had stopped at a traffic light) she actually smiled.

Child: Wow, Mum that is good! Why didn’t you say that earlier? Anyway, he should also tell Uhuru Kenyatta. You know he is even braver and is really the big boss.

Me:- Yes, Uhuru is also aware.

Child: I think those bad people are going to be punished very badly. They shouldn’t be allowed to ever do that again. 

Thereafter, she was back to her chatty self and the ride to school was now relaxed. As the days go by there are likely to be tougher questions coming up.

Now onto science,

Psychological first aid is an evidence based approach that aims to reduce stress symptoms and assist otherwise mentally healthy people recover following a psychologically traumatising event. It is important to refer your child for professional counselling if:-

  • They lost a friend or family member or the member is still missing over the event
  • Directly observed a traumatic event
  • Got hurt in the event
  • Have experienced a past traumatic event
  • Develop a change in behaviour or mood (difficulty sleeping; loss of concentration in school or conversations, become irritable sad or angry and so on)

Otherwise as parents it is recommended that you:-

  1. Listen to your child. This includes verbal and non-verbal communication. Make sure you have this conversation at their level of understanding when they bring it up. If they don’t hear it from you, they will hear it from other sources.
  2. Acknowledge that the event is challenging and generally bad.
  3. Answer all their questions to the best of your ability simply and honestly. Where you do not know, admit it and seek to find out.
  4. Be aware of your own emotions and let the child know many adults are also feeling the way he/she is feeling about the situation and that is normal.
  5. Allow your child to talk, draw and play as a way to express themselves on the issue.
  6. Maintain routines and schedules as consistency. As long as the government allows it, school and daily activities should continue.
  7. Limit access to graphic images and videos on TV, phones, newspapers to the best of your ability.
  8. Reassure them that the adults, the community, government or anyone they regard as powerful is in charge and doing a good a job to keep us safe.

Instil a sense of safety in their minds as much as you can just as we struggle to do the same for ourselves as adults.


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