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A double decker bus and a car are set alight on the edge of O Connell Bridge as hundreds of people rioted on O'Connell Street. Rolling News
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Clinical psychologist How do we help children make sense of the horrors of yesterday?

Dr Sara O’Byrne says there are ways to help children deal with the trauma of events in Dublin this week.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 24th 2023, 4:00 PM

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT violence closer to home that can spark greater fear in children. All of a sudden, the impact becomes more personal and children find themselves thinking, “What if this could happen to me?” Or “am I safe?” 

We have been witnessing horrendous events unfold in the Middle East for weeks now. Images of children being carried out of rubble or hostage posters for others held captive underground are filtering through to us every day. For parents and guardians of small children, it can be challenging to navigate the discussion around these most horrendous examples of violence against the innocent. 

While not easy to process, it can be somewhat manageable when those horrors are in a faraway country — you can at least shield children from the news via a switch off of the radio or TV. That’s something, protecting them from something you pray they’ll never have to understand or confront.

The darkest of days

Hiding or avoiding these horrors when they are on our own doorstep, however, is next to impossible. Yesterday, extreme violence against small children in our capital city presented itself in the most horrific way.

The trauma associated with these events for the victims, for their families, is unimaginable. Our hearts are with them today. They will need help in the coming weeks and months to get them through this.

There is an extended trauma too that filters into the local community and throughout the country after something like this. Events like these knock us to our core — you find yourself thinking about your own children, or the children of your community, the ones you see every day going to school, bags on their backs, cared for and feeling safe. Suddenly, you ask, “could this happen to me or my loved one”. 

As a society, we work so hard to make sure that our children are safe in school, through safeguarding, investment, and training for staff. We want children to learn in school, but mostly, we want them to thrive. That’s what school should be – the place you go to learn and grow.

And then, the possibility that something like what happened on Parnell St yesterday could occur in broad daylight — at a time when children are safe, cared for and on their way to afterschool with their minders. The horror and the upset are almost too much to take in. And yes, as adults, you’d be right, it is all too much. For children, even more so. 

We could have been here discussing those awful events today, and it would have been too much. And yet, here we are… left to deal not only with the Parnell St attack but the violence and destruction wreaked on the people of the city by a mob intent on doing the greatest damage. Today, Dublin is left with the wreckage of wanton destruction, we are faced with images of burnt-out trams, buses up in flames, broken windows and ambushed and outnumbered gardaí. A capital city out of control.

Understanding trauma

The clean-up may have begun, the policing is underway and political hand wringing with it, but how do we process it all, as a society? How did we get here and why has this all happened? And how do we, as parents, guardians, relatives, teachers and carers explain any of this to children?

Despite our best efforts, children will find it hard to avoid news of the events of yesterday. Even well-meaning adults will slip up and discuss it with another adult, forgetful of the small ears in the room. Discussions about the details of yesterday are everywhere – social media, TV and radio. Then there is the school yard. 

It can be difficult to shield older children in particular from this information, and sometimes accounts that are heard second-hand from peers or through glimpses online might need to be corrected. With this in mind, there are some basic principles that might be helpful:

Listen

Find out what the child knows. Ask them gentle questions, let them steer the conversation. It can be tempting to jump in and lead but it’s important to gauge just what version they are understanding. Just listen.

Correct

Often, because children are filtering this information almost by osmosis via peers or overheard conversations, they might have only a small picture, or even worse, the wrong information. This can lead to confusion and more stress for them. Correct any factually incorrect information. Give the facts without giving unnecessary graphic details. 

Share your emotions

It helps to keep your voice calm and matter-of-fact when speaking to children about this, they will take the lead from your emotional state. However, it’s also OK for you to share your own emotions. It’s OK to let your child know that you’re upset or concerned. They will feel safer to share their own emotions. 

Explain the facts

Let them know that these events are unusual and provide messages of reassurance about their own safety. When we are overwhelmed taking in these events, it’s important for all of us to remember that, thankfully, this is rare in our society. 

Highlight the positive

Sometimes, the feeling of despair can be all-consuming after events like this, but it’s also important to remind the child that yesterday also brought some real examples of heroism, kindness and humanity. The intervention of bystanders at the scene on Parnell St to protect the children, the first responders working hard to help the injured, the brave gardaí keeping our streets safe, all of these can help form a picture of safety and protection for the child’s mind.

‘Ask me anything’

Let the child know they can come to you with any questions and for further support if needed. Tell them there’s no such thing as a question you won’t answer. Keep the door open, the conversation is there for them whenever they need it. 

The wider reaction

At a broader level, there are some complex themes now in the ether after yesterday’s events in Dublin. We are confronted with tough issues around race, immigration, poverty and different perspectives in society.

There is an opportunity to promote understanding and reflection, particularly for older children and adolescents, and in a safe way support them to form their own views on a very complex issue.

We will be analysing for some time the ins and outs of yesterday, one of the darkest of days in Dublin city’s history. For today, go gently, be kind to yourself and speak to the children in your life to help them process. When you do, there’s also no harm in reminding them of the good that exists in Ireland’s diverse communities and cities. 

Dr Sara O’Byrne is a clinical psychologist, with particular experience in the treatment of trauma. She is CEO of Treehouse Practice a specialised service for young people who have experienced trauma.

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Dr Sara O’Byrne