The graphic reports and images of tragic events like MH17 flooding our media channels could be distressing to the children. How can parents help them to cope?
IS Barbie hurt, Mummy? Can we take her to the doctor?”
Sales manager Sarah Mohammed says her three-year-old daughter has bombarded her non-stop with questions since she saw the picture of a mangled Barbie doll at the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash site in Ukraine in the newspaper.
“I don’t know how to answer. I wish I had not left the newspaper lying around in the house. And I was really careful to keep the news away from her!”
One thing Sarah is thankful for is that her daughter is too young to catch the news from other sources.
The wide reach of and easy access to the media means that the information onslaught has been difficult to escape, and footage of victims’ personal belongings and wreckage of the plane strewn across the fields had been shown in a non-ending loop on the television.
Although mainstream media has been careful not to show graphic images of the crash, they are easily available online, specifically on Facebook and Twitter. Combined with the current spotlight on the atrocities of the Gaza conflict, the graphic coverage can have an impact on viewers, say experts.
According to a study by the University of California, Irvine, prolonged exposure to violent images of traumatic events can trigger a strong emotional response in many, and even stress in the more vulnerable.
Conducted in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing last year, the study, which surveyed some 4,675 adults across the United States, showed that those exposed to more than six hours of daily media coverage of the bombing were more likely to experience symptoms of acute stress than those directly affected by the incident.
“When you repeatedly see images of a person with gruesome injuries after an event is over, it’s like the event continues and has its own presence in your life,” E. Alison Holman, associate professor of nursing science at UC Irvine and the study’s lead author explains on the university’s website.
“Prolonged media exposure can turn what was an acute experience into a chronic form of stress.… Looking at these images over and over again is not productive and may be harmful.”
Stepping away from the television, computer screen or smartphone in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, mass shootings and other tragedies may be beneficial to your mental health, she advises.
Where children are concerned, family, child and play therapist Charis Wong stresses the importance of shielding them, especially those aged six and below, from exposure to such reports.
Disturbing footage from traumatic events such as the MH17 tragedy can have a negative effect on young children, she says.
“Young children are most sensitive to such images and are likely to be upset and confused by them. They will become anxious and fearful for their own and family’s safety,” says Wong, who is also director of KIN & KiDS Marriage, Family and Child Therapy Center in Kuala Lumpur.
A problem, she adds, is that children are often allowed too much time– or left on their own without adult supervision – in front of a television, the computer and mobile device.
Our IT-savvy children quickly learn how to flip channels on their own or go to other websites.
“It’s important for parents to screen and limit exposure of these events to their children, so do not leave your children unsupervised in front of the TV or online. And do not leave newspapers or magazines with disturbing images lying around the house.”
Wong warns that young children might even get disturbed by graphic images of fictional scenes from movies and television programmes.
If children, including older children, have already been exposed to disturbing images on TV or in the newspapers, parents need to take time to talk to them about the event, she says.
“Talk to them about it in a way that they can understand, always keeping in mind what is age appropriate, answer their questions, correct any misunderstandings, acknowledge their feelings and reassure them that they are safe.
“With teenagers who are naturally curious and interested in what is going on in the world, I would suggest that parents watch the news coverage together and take time to process the news together.”
This is something mother of two Anna Koh has been trying to do to help her son Adrian, 11, understand the MH17 tragedy.
“Sometimes I wish I had not read some of the reports because of their graphic description that stays stuck in my mind. If it’s difficult for me, what more for my children?
“The issue my son is grappling with is why God allowed it to happen. And he also keeps asking whose fault it is and why it happened. And this is hard to answer – there are so many rumours and conspiracy theories that it’s difficult for even an adult to process the information,” says Koh who concedes that she tries to keep the more graphic images of the crash from her son.
“We try to guide him where we can and allow him to have his ‘child’ perspective of the events because we feel that he needs to process it himself.”
When asked, Adrian says, “It’s very scary for me because at any point something can happen to anyone. I also feel unsafe. I’m scared for my general safety, not just flying. I’m so unsure of what is going on. Why is Malaysia suffering all of a sudden, first MH370 then MH17?”
Although his mother has explained it to him, he says he still has many questions.
“I feel I want to know more but most of the time, I don’t understand what I read online or feel that it is complete nonsense.”
Let them talk and grieve
Parents should talk about these traumatic events with their children, says Help International School director Dr Goh Chee Leong (pic).
“When their children ask questions, parents should not skirt the issue and deny that it happened.
“When tragedies happen, the healthiest thing for parents to do is to attempt to explain what happened, to explain that it is a sad thing and the concept of death using their own belief system.”
Helping the child understand what has happened is important as it will help prevent trauma, says Dr Goh who is also vice-president of the Malaysian Psychological Association.
“Many parents avoid talk of death and accidents. But all this is reality – accidents happen, planes crash, and people die in accidents and crashes.”
In most cases, children are upset rather than traumatised, he opines.
“I don’t think these events would traumatise children unless they are directly involved.
“But if they are disturbed by the coverage and develop a phobia, then parents should seek help from a counsellor or psychologist.”
The overwhelming double tragedy of MH17 and MH370 has affected the whole nation, and many now feel the need to express their thoughts and feelings as a way of processing and understanding what happened.
“But some people are pre-disposed to empathise more than others,” Dr Goh says.
People grieve in different and personal ways. Some write in their blogs, some write messages or letters of support. Others feel they need to reach out, offer support or donate money to those who have lost loves ones. Some process their grief by talking to friends and families while others do it through prayer, notes Dr Goh.
“Some are introspective and examine their own life, asking whether they have lived a worthy life and made the most of the opportunities given.
“Often when tragedies happen, we tend to remember and reflect on our own mortality. If a tragedy like this inspires those who are here to treasure life, live a better and a more constructive life and be a blessing to others, then this is a healthy response,” he says.
There is no one way for parents to help their children and it depends on their values and their belief systems, he adds.
“Parents just need to be supportive and allow their children to grieve and honour those who have passed in their own way.”
Dr Goh believes vigils are a good outlet for children to express their thoughts and feelings.
“It’s a healthy practice and teaches children to empathise with the families and victims of the tragedy.”
Attending a vigil has been helpful for Kaviraj Anpalahen, 12, to cope with how he feels about the tragedies.
“I read about MH370 which went missing five months ago, and now this (MH17). It makes me sad and I have cut some articles and pasted them in my room.
“At first, when I heard the news about MH17, I thought it was MH370 that was shot, then I realised it was another plane. My friends and I cannot stop talking about it in school. We are really angry, and we want justice for the innocent people,” says Kaviraj.
He adds that although he doesn’t know anyone on the ill-fated planes, he has many relatives and family friends working in MAS and overseas.
“I’m now scared to fly, and when my mother flew to India, I was really scared.”
For Katelyn Pereira, also 12, attending vigils is a way for her to express her feelings.
“I got a lot of information from the news on TV and my parents. We prayed for them in school and some friends set up a poster at the back of the class. I hope the families will get through this and we will find out what happened.”
Her father, Kevin Pereira, who took her to a vigil in Subang Jaya recently shares that he wanted to expose his child to loss.
“It’s better to give children the information instead of shielding them from it. What you need to do is to help them manage the information by teaching them how to process and use it.”
Former MAS cabin crew Noor Herdawaty Zakaria is another who wanted to expose her children to loss by taking them to the vigils to remember both flights.
“I want to show my sons that life is precious and we should value it, and appreciate each other especially since their father is a pilot. Now, although my younger son doesn’t ask too many questions, he gets very worried when his daddy is away, or arrives home late.”
Noor Herdawaty, who shares that she had trained with one of the MH17 victims, Sanjid Singh Sandhu, also feels attending the vigils give her a way to cope with her own feelings of loss and attempts to make sense of the terrible tragedies.
“Once a crew, you’ll always be a crew. We support all of my MAS family members – those who are still flying and need to put a smile on their face no matter what.
“It started with MH370, and the sadness is difficult to bear, and now we have this tragedy. It’s too much, I’m speechless, seriously.”
She allows her sons to not only watch and read all the news on the incidents but also go online and on social media to look at the graphic pictures.
“I think it is important that they know the truth. I try to let them think for themselves and don’t explain everything.
“I just let them know that they can ask me anything or talk to me about anything they don’t understand. I only talk to them about it if I think the news is not accurate.”
Noor Herdawaty adds: “Parents can only filter (the information in the media) and talk over the values with them. I try to tell my children it can happen to anyone and can happen to us too.”