How to speak to your children about the Bondi stabbing rampage

In the face of the unbelievable tragedy, a psychologist has advised parents how they can talk about it with their kids.

As Australians across the country attempt to grapple with the sheer tragedy of the horrific stabbing attack at Bondi Junction Westfield on Saturday, a psychologist is urging parents to talk with their kids about what happened.

Following the attack on more than a dozen people by Queensland man Joel Cauchi, which many young shoppers would have witnessed, heartbreaking images have emerged of a father — desperate to shield his children from the scene — guiding two children wearing eye masks outside the building.

While in the wake of the attack, mourners including many young kids have been pictured laying flowers outside the centre in memory of the six people who lost their lives.

A father and his blindfolded children.
A father covered his children's eyes as he led them away from the scene at Bondi Junction on Saturday. Source: Nine News

It’s a stark reminder that while adults can barely comprehend the incident, the impact can be even greater for children, whether they were near the violence on the weekend or not.

Professor Caroline Hunt from the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney told Yahoo News Australia that in the days and weeks after hearing about the attacks children may suffer from anxiety.

“They may have nightmares, they might not be able to sleep that well, they may want to talk about the event, and it might even come out in their play if they're young,” Hunt said.

So, how do we speak to the younger generation about what happened in a way that won’t traumatise or further impact their mental health?

An upset mother walking across the road with a child in her arms and a girl holding her arm.
Emotional mothers were seen leaving the shopping centre with their distraught children after the attack. Source: Getty Images

Listen to what children have to say

According to Hunt, one of the most important things that we can do as adults is not to presume what children might be thinking, and also not to project our own thoughts onto children.

“I think the first step for parents would be to really listen and understand what the children know about the event, what they think about it and what their own fears are, because they may have fears that are very unrealistic about the situation but we won't know that until we actually find out from them exactly what they're worried about,” she explained.

For example, they might be scared that an attack like the one in Bondi might happen again.

“Are they fearful that it is going to happen to them? Is it going to happen to their parents? Or are their parents going to be taken away?

“So, I think the first step is to not assume anything and just really try to understand and ask children what their understanding is, and whether they have any worries themselves about it. It’s about really listening carefully and very calmly about what they might be thinking.”

A paramedic talking with a man and women and two children.
Many parents and their children were at Bondi Junction on Saturday afternoon when the attack broke out. Source: Getty Images

What to do when children have questions

Most importantly, you want to stay away from any of the really frightening and traumatic details of the event, Professor Hunt advised.

“Just give a calm understanding that something happened and people got hurt and it was all very sad and people are finding it difficult,” she said.

“And if there are questions that you can’t answer, be absolutely clear about that and say, ‘Look, I really don't know why the person did that, nobody knows at this stage why that has happened, and I can't answer that question’.”

Whatever you do, don’t try to make things up.

“Be honest and say, ‘I don't know why these things happen'. But the important thing, of course, is to balance that about how these things are very rare, that it's very unusual, and also to make sure that children feel safe and that nothing's going to happen to them.”

A father and a little girl (left) and a woman and a little girl (right) leaving flowers at the memorial.
Children and their parents have been laying floral tributes outside the shopping centre following the mass killings. Source: Getty Images

How to deal with fear of returning to the scene

While children will process anxiety in their own way, Hunt explained that there may be some fear about returning to Bondi Junction shopping centre for Sydney children.

“If there is some fearfulness, talk to the child about that, saying, ‘You might feel a bit nervous, that’s ok, we’re all feeling a little bit nervous about going to the shopping centre but shopping centres are actually safe, and this thing was something that is not going to be in our normal experience’,” she said.

The other thing is to try to make things as routine and as normal as possible, without pushing children.

“If there's a really high amount of fear and you're really not able to reassure your child enough to be able to go to the shopping centre, then I wouldn't be pushing them to do that,” Hunt said.

“And if it goes on for longer than a couple of weeks, parents might think about talking to a professional about whether they need to get some professional help in talking to their child,” she said.

A woman holding two teenage girls.
Professor Caroline Hunt from the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney said it is important to talk to children about what happened. Source: Getty Images

Beyond letting children know that it’s ok and normal to be concerned and worried about what happened, the Kids Helpline urged adults to try to limit their exposure to media around the tragedy in order to not re-traumatise them and build anxiety.

They also recommended finding something positive to do, such as writing a card or contributing to a fundraising campaign, sticking to your normal daily routine, and providing lots of hugs and love.

The Kids Helpline is Australia’s only national 24/7 counselling and support service specially for those aged five to 25, and can be called for free on 1800 55 1800.

If you're struggling, know that help is available 24/7.

Lifeline: Call 13 11 14, text 0477 13 11 14 or chat online.

Beyond Blue: Call 1300 22 4636 or chat online.

1800RESPECT: Call 1800 737 732, text 0458 737 732 or chat online.

13 Yarn: Call 13 92 76.

MensLine Australia: Call 1300 78 99 78.

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