Modern Family: Helping Children Deal With Terrorism in India and Abroad

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Jan 9, 2015

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Toddlers to teenagers, children can’t escape the politics of hate. If the recent Peshawar school massacre is any indication, children are being drawn further and further into adult conflict.  While parents and teachers may not be able to stop children from seeing these images, adults can influence how children process their thoughts and fears. Denying them discussion, though they’re anguished and afraid, may only compound the damage of the media barrage.

Today’s habitually wired kids are vulnerable to images of war, violence, and terrorism in India and abroad. Disturbing shots of riots can be morbidly fascinating, but also traumatizing.  Psychotherapist Rani Raote, who has extensively treated children with post-trauma stress disorders, says, “Trauma is too huge for a normal mind to handle. Pain doesn’t disappear by not being acknowledged. Sequestered memories trigger off again in worse ways [that are] difficult to predict.”

So talk to your children, Raote advises.

“Explain without shielding them,” she says. “Have a practical plan ready. Tell them what to do in emergencies if phone lines can’t connect them to you – go to a pre-assigned safe place or stay back in school, rather than roam the roads in alarm.”

Outside the home, teachers can take the same approach.  Schools have not been spared the hoax bomb threats, and fear can creep in even where children think themselves most safe. Baseless rumours and half-baked conspiracy theories thrive on ignorance. Teachers should not hide realities, but should give children a plan in the event of an attack.

However, it’s important to stay positive, especially in front of children. Ratan Tata observes in his foreword to I Have a Dream, a collection of writings and drawings by children after the November 26, 2008 serial attacks on Mumbai: “Children display unbelievable empathy, courage and imagination when confronted with extreme emotional disturbance.”

Surrounded by escalating violence, the very young may not understand extremism. Yet, just talking about it can bring some peace.

I sit to finish writing this piece the morning after the outrageous shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. A friend calls. She has returned from the market having overheard a conversation between her fruit vendor and his son.  All bewildered innocence, he asked: “Father, they say the men killed in France worked for a cartoon magazine?”

“Stop looking at those pictures. Give me back that paper.”

“Cartoons make me and everyone happy. Why would anyone shoot funny men?”

“Ah, some people get angry when they think you are laughing at them.”

“My teacher tells us laughter brings friends together. This is the opposite of that!”

“Beta, we will talk some more about it, but now here’s our next customer…”

With simple wisdom the man had bought his boy a little time and distance from the episode. Skewed logic apart, the chat might have relieved the child for a bit.

The sharpness of satire is hard to comprehend, but literal illustrations of violence often leave an indelible mark. It has helped our kids to have the family validate their fears without dwelling on them. After watching Blood Diamond, my almost-adult children were stunned by the brutality of Sierra Leone’s civil war funded by “conflict diamonds.”  Their moral compass engaged, brother and sister stood before me pale-faced. They were moved enough to beg: “Don’t see the movie, mum. You’ll never be able to wear jewellery again.”  My husband and I were getting dressed for a wedding that evening. Yes, we did later discuss the tragedy of Sierra Leone. But right then, with their reaction in mind, I put on my simplest strand of pearls.

It often takes a troubled young mind to make an adult think twice.

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Written By Meher Marfatia

Meher Marfatia lives and works in Mumbai as a freelance writer and independent publisher. The author of 10 books for children and two for parents, she also runs a reading club for pre-adolescents with Rupal Patel. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at: mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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