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Manchester attack: explaining terrorism to children

countering fear

The attendees and victims of Monday night's deadly attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, were primarily teen and pre-teens. That changes the math on how to help children understand the event.

People hold placards as they take part in a vigil for the victims of an attack on concert goers at Manchester Arena, in central Manchester, Britain May 23, 2017.
Peter Nicholls/Reuters
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When she took her 7-year-old on a visit to London just days after the terrorist attack near Westminster in March, Vicky Hall-Newman felt it her duty as a mother to explain what to do in the case they were to run into a “bad guy.”

“ ‘If mummy runs, you run. If mummy says to get on the floor, you get on the floor,’ ” she told her daughter. “She said ‘OK,’ and then went off to play. Later on I heard her talking to her dolls, she was saying, ‘If mummy tells us to run, we have to run.’ ”

But the mother, who writes a blog at Beingtillysmummy.co.uk and has written about stress in children, suspects the latest attack at a concert of a pop teen idol in Manchester will be a harder talk than simple instructions – because children were among the 22 killed and teen girls were the overwhelming witnesses of the chaos and carnage Monday night.

“It is going to bring reality to them,” says Ms. Hall-Newman, in a telephone interview from Manchester where she happens to be at a conference – and where she spent the weekend with her daughter.

The suicide bomber is reported to be 22-year-old Salman Abedi, who was born in Manchester to parents who fled Libya's Qaddafi regime. He is believed to have set off an improvised explosive at around 10:30 p.m. Monday night at the Manchester Arena just after Ariana Grande, an American singer who first became known to the public on Nickelodeon, finished her set. Among the 22 dead, and more than 50 injured, is Georgina Callander, 18, whose photo shows her sporting big glasses. The youngest confirmed victim is Saffie Roussos, age 8, just a year older than Hall-Newman’s daughter. The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Andrew Mumford, co-director of the Center for Conflict, Security, and Terrorism at the University of Nottingham, says that the timing, right before a snap general election called for June 8, as well as the targeting, is not random. “One of the things clearly most shocking about this attack is the victims look to be mainly young people, young girls, children who were enjoying one of the most innocent pleasures that we enjoy in the Western world – a pop concert,” he says. “That I think was deliberate.”

Pink balloons and iPhones

Video footage taken on iPhones and spread across social media shows those lingering after the concert clutching pink balloons that had been released in Ms. Grande’s final song. After an explosion is heard, a girl is recorded asking, “Oh my god, what just happened?” In another video are the sounds of voices squealing, the unmistakable tones of those underage.

The bomber exploded the device, and himself, in the foyer of the arena, in the heart of Manchester, a thriving, post-industrial city that launched many bands in the 1980s. Many parents were waiting on the steps outside the arena to pick up their young concert goers, some of them at their first-ever concert unchaperoned, when the bomb went off.

Grande wrote on Twitter hours later: “broken. from the bottom of my heart, i am so so sorry. i don’t have words.”

Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the EU, tweeted in support of the young. “Fear won’t prevail. European youth will continue to enjoy their love for life, freedom & joy, together.”

Children have always been the victims, direct and indirect, of war and violence. They have been singled out in school shootings that have become too common in the United States. They were specifically targeted by Anders Behring Breivik while at a political summer camp in Norway in 2011. In the violence perpetrated by Islamist extremists they have been killed, caught at the wrong place, and lost parents and loved ones. Even children not directly affected by attacks have been shaken, as a video that went viral of a man consoling his son after the Bataclan attacks in Paris in November 2015 shows.

The latest attack comes as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a British charity, has reported a 35 percent rise in counseling sessions through their “Childline” between 2014-15 and 2015-16. The reasons include everything from family matters to world affairs (including Brexit) to terrorism. The office says they see a spike after any attack. They released a statement today urging adults to listen carefully to a child’s fears and to avoid “complicated and worrying explanations that could leave them more frightened and confused.”

Fred Zelinger, a New York-based psychologist who works with teens and young adults, says that Monday night’s incident could impact children more because they will relate to the victims. “For all of us, the closer we identify with the victim the more significant the impact is going be. A child witnessing a child being injured or hurt, has much more impact ... because it directly deals with their perception of safety,” he says. They’ll think, “If that child wasn’t safe how can I be safe?”

His wife Laurie Zelinger, a child psychologist who wrote the children’s book “Please Explain Terrorism to Me,” agrees that children have a “magical sense” where they more closely identify with young protagonists that could make this tragedy harder to process.

She decided to write her book, which includes illustrations and text, to help children navigate the terrorism they are increasingly seeing around them – especially portrayed in the media – in an age-appropriate and calming way.

Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist who pens a column for The Telegraph, says she believes that the ages of the victims could make a deeper psychological impression on parents, who are “100 percent programmed to be protecting the young,” more so than the children themselves. And she advises parents not to initiate a conversation about the attack, but follow a child’s lead.

'Keeping our balance'

Still, Ms. Blair suspects in this case children could be more prone to questioning – simply because the attack at the arena involves younger people and a star that they admire. She says when they do have questions, it is a parent’s job not to project their own anxieties, and to give the child a more balanced picture than the media does when it focuses on the negative side of the news. One academic study conducted after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, for example, concluded that “repeated bombing-related media exposure was associated with higher acute stress than was direct exposure.”

“This is an unbelievably terrible thing, but it is one thing, and also there will be good people trying to help,” Blair says. “Keeping our balance will help us let our children grow up embracing life rather than fearing it.”

Hall-Newman is trying to strike that balance right now. “I’m supposed to bring my daughter [back] to Manchester at the weekend, and I’m thinking, maybe I shouldn’t. Or should I?”

At first she woke up saying to herself that she wouldn't have her daughter come, especially because they are supposed to be going to a kids’ musical festival this weekend. Then she changed her mind, in part because she says: "If I do stop, then they [the terrorists] win.”

She doesn’t believe that it’s a more dangerous era to be growing up. When her other, now-adult daughter was young, there was no major terrorist threat, but more attention on kidnapping and child murder. And Hall-Newman's father was in the army, so she grew up around conflict with Northern Ireland.

She says she believes it’s her duty to tell her daughter what are the dangers in the current area, in simple, non-threatening terms. She put a post on Facebook today, imploring her friends and family not to mention the Manchester bombing to her 7-year-old daughter, especially while she is still there. “I don’t want her worrying about me,” she says. “ Also I feel I can explain it better to her.”

• Tamara Micner contributed reporting from London.