Talking to Children about the Mass Shooting at Christchurch

For more information, please contact Dr. Gurwitch at [email protected] or Elana Newman at [email protected].

By Robin Gurwitch, Elana Newman, Alyssa Rippy & Greg Leskin

Whoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then let him change it with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart."

            - Prophet Mohammed

The recent murders, injuries, and aftermath at the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques in Christchurch New Zealand, sadly remind us that hate, anti-Muslim bigotry, and racism persist in many countries. Attacking innocent people peacefully praying in a house of worship is an act of terrorism that has evoked many emotions including fear, anxiety and worry, confusion, and even anger in many around the world. It shook our ideas about the safety of the world around us. This is an attack on all faiths. We need to speak up. We may be struggling to make sense of what we are seeing and hearing in media coverage. So too are our children. Children and teens will be turning to trusted adults for help and guidance. It is imperative that we talk to them about what is happening and what everyone can do. Members of the Muslim community, whether near or far, whether a convert, first generation or immigrant, whether ethnically or religiously identified, may respond to these events with increased helplessness, vigilance and suspicion. 

  • Start the conversation. Talk about the events with your child. Not talking about it can make the event even more threatening in your child’s mind. Silence suggests that what has occurred is too horrible to even speak of or that you may not know about what has happened or even how to cope. With traditional and social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, text messages, and newsbreaks on favorite radio stations, and other avenues), it is highly unlikely that children and teenagers have not heard about the shooting at the Mosques, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and racism, and responses from our leaders across the world. NOTE: For young children (preschool and below), they may not understand the discussions. Please consider the bullet point below.
    • What does your child already know? Given the nature of this event, that aspects of the shooting were broadcast via social media, it is likely that children and youth using social media were exposed to some aspect of the attack, including the actual shooting and aftermath. Start by asking what your child/teen has already heard about the events in Christchurch and the aftermath from media as well as from friends. Listen for what understanding he or she has reached. As your child explains, listen for misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears or concerns. Understand that this information will evolve in the days ahead. Remember to be truthful, but feel free to say you are unsure if you do not know the information yet. Avoid gory details but if children ask answer truthfully
      • For Preschool children, consider what they have seen or heard. Do not assume they do not sense your emotions or have heard your conversations. Be mindful of exposure. As noted above, listen for misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears or concerns.
    • Gently correct inaccurate information. If you hear inaccurate information or misunderstandings from your child/teen, take time to provide the correct information in language your child/teen can understand.
    • Encourage your child to ask questions, and answer those questions directly. Your child/teen may have some difficult questions about recent events. For example, she or he may ask if it is possible that such a shooting and hatred could come to your Mosque, to your community; she or he is probably really asking whether it is “likely.” It is important to discuss the likelihood of this risk. She or he is also asking if she is safe. This may be a time to review plans your family has of assuring safety in the event of any crisis situation. Include in your answers any information you may have on efforts being made to assure safety (e.g., working with local responders, with experts in safety, and with Muslim community leadership and teachers about anti-Muslim bigotry, hatred, and discrimination). Like adults, children/teens are better able to cope with a difficult situation if they feel they have information. Question-and-answer exchanges help ensure ongoing support as your child begins to cope with emotions related to recent events and their aftermath.
    • Discuss Anti-Muslim bigotry and racism, again answering questions directly. No one wants to have to have a discussion with their children that people dislike them just for being Muslim, an immigrant, or attending a Muslim place of worship or community center. But, given recent events and a rise in anti-Muslim comments, discussing this with children/teens lets them know that you are willing to discuss difficult topics. Sometimes, the answer may be, “I don’t know why some people don’t like us/our Muslim friends, but it is never ok to say hurtful things to others.” Help children and teens come up with a response should anyone say or do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. Help them identify adults they can trust should something be said or done when you are not around. There are many children’s books for different ages that are available related to anti Muslim prejudice including books regarding how the Prophet Muhammed and the early Muslims suffered from hate and prejudice. If none of those are available, other books on coping with prejudice may be appropriate. Consider reading one with your child or providing one to your teen. Discuss the book after it is read as a way to jump-start a conversation about a challenging topic.
      • Empower your children and teens. When discussing the mass shooting at the Mosques in Christchurch, it is important to identify individuals who children and teens can trust should they be worried or overwhelmed by emotions and need someone to talk to about these issues. You are also identifying trusted individuals to approach if they or someone they know or see is being victimized by bullying actions. You can also empower them to ask about safety and security for all. This is also very important for your children entering/returning to college. Having information is important to coping and resilience in the face of difficult circumstances.
      • For preschool children: You may begin the conversation with “sometimes people can say things that are mean and hurt our feelings. Some people may say these things to us just because we are Muslim. We are very proud to be Muslim. If someone ever tries to be a bully to you because you are Muslim, it is important for you to tell me and to tell your teacher. I will do everything I can to be sure you are always safe. That is your teacher’s job, too. No one ever should be bullied or made to feel bad because of who they are, what they look like, or what they believe. Have you heard about anything like this or has someone ever said or done anything to you?”
      • For older children and teens: Discuss these events with a historical perspective. The Quran and Hadith have numerous examples of patience and resilience in times of hatred and discrimination that can provide examples to help children how to put discrimination in context as well as resilient ways to cope with hatred. In the early days of Islam, the Prophet and the Companions suffered from discrimination, prejudice, and violence from the people of Mecca for many years. The Prophet Mohammed and his companions faced this discrimination with dignity, patience, and hope. The example of Malala Yousafzai is also helpful. Malala is a teenage girl who overcame violence and stood up against terrorism.
      • For college students: As your college students may be away from home, they (and you) may be concerned about how recent events may be played out on college campuses. These may take the form of protests, rallies, and student organizations being formed. Existing Muslim and interfaith organizations may also be planning activites or special events. Talk to your college students about safety and security on campus. Identify where to find information. Identify trusted organizations and individuals. Discuss their thougths about involvement. Stress the important need to say something should they or anyone they know or see be the victim of hate speech or actions.
  • Values and beliefs. As you begin conversations, recognize that this is an important opportunity to instill values and beliefs about respect, tolerance, and diversity. What your children/teens hear and see from you, they learn and these can become their values and beliefs. As Nelson Mandela so eloquently stated, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…” This was followed by what we have come to learn through experience as well as empirical research, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”
    • Demonstrate support of your local Muslim community:  Attend a public event, write a letter to a Mosque nearby or make food for a Muslim neighbor with your child that show support for your neighbors of the community.
    • Recognition of other groups: When talking to your children and teens about your values and beliefs, help them identify other groups who may be targeted for hate and discrimination. These include minorities, other religious groups, refugees, individuals with physical and mental disabilities, and LBGTQ individuals. These children/teens may also be scared, worried, anxious, and even angry. Consider how you would like your child to support others who may be targeted with racism and hate speech and actions.
    • Discuss your perspective of faith. This is an opportunity to discuss your religion, faith, lack of faith, or views about religious freedom with your child.  The assault on the sanctity of a safe place to pray on any faith, is an attack of all religious freedom.
      •  If you are Muslim, this an opportunity to discuss your perspective on Islamic dress, hijab, or having a beard.  Your child may be worried about being identified or family members being identified as Muslim due to wearing Islamic dress, hijab, or having a beard.  Help children to identify an advocate at school who they can go to with any concerns they may have or to report any incidents where they were bullied because they choose to wear hijab or Islamic dress.  This could be either a teacher or administrative staff who can help. Alternatively, children and teens may be concerned about not expressing solidarity through dress. Talk to your children and teens about your values.
    • Remember to focus on the Helpers.  In addition to the traditional emergency responders. Point out the many people who helped after the event.  While this is not the only focus, it can help children understand the good and counter the helplessness.
  • Common reactions. Children/Teens may have reactions to these events. First, having feelings of grief, sadness, anger, and nervousness can be an indicator of a compassionate moral child. This is distressing event and tolerable distressing feelings are to be expected.
    • In the immediate aftermath of a threat, problems with attention and concentration may arise. Increases in irritability and defiance may be present. Children and even teens may have more difficulty separating from caregivers, wanting to stay at home or with caregivers. Worries and anxieties about what has happened, what may happen in the future, and how this will impact their lives are common. As the events in Christchurch, other acts of hatred, and White Supremacist rhetoric are discussed across our world, children/teens who were not directly impacted may have anxieties that “it could have happened to me.” Children/Teens may think about this event, even when they are trying not to. Sleep and appetite may also be affected. In general, these reactions will begin to lessen within a few weeks of events. Support from you will help with feelings of safety and security.
    • Note: For those children (and adults) in Christchurch who lived through the earthquake, feelings from those times may be activated. It may be useful to remind your child/teen that those feelings passed and these will too.
  • Be a positive role model. Consider sharing your feelings about the events with your child/teen at a level they can understand. You may express worry, fear, and even a little anger for what happened and for what leaders and others are saying. You may express sadness, worry, and empathy. But, it is very important for you to also share with your child/teen ideas for coping with difficult situations like talking with you or other trusted adults. Your positive statements about the response by many leaders, Imams, and others in support of those targeted by hatred will increase your children’s sense of security and safety.  You will also be modelling that you can be upset, sad or worried but can manage them successfully.
  • Limit adult conversations. Be mindful that children/teens are sensitive to your stress. Know that they also listen to your conversations, even when you don’t believe they can hear or are attending to you. Children may not understand all of your conversations and will fill in the blanks, often with misconceptions or inaccurate information. While the recent events have raised concerns for adults, have discussions about your feelings and thoughts with other adults out of your child’s or teens presence. It is important that you express your concerns in a healthy way as stress impacts all of us.
  • Limit media exposure. The events in Christchurch and the aftermath of these is on every type of media. These are compounded by continued terrorist attacks around the world. Limit exposure to this coverage. For the very young child, there is truly no “good” amount. For young children and teens, they will likely have contact with traditional and social media. The younger the child, the less the exposure should be. In all cases, find a time to sit with your child/teen and ask about what they have seen, what they have heard. Get their ideas and opinions
    • This is an opportunity to discuss how to use social media.  It not healthy for children to view the graphic internet footage of the shootings and encourage your child or teen not to seek it out.  This is exactly what the terrorist wanted, and defying this tendency can be discussed as an act of courage and solidarity for the victims. 
    • If your teens and children do want to access news, you might consider accessing that media together to discuss it afterward.   Even checking in to determine what their friends may be saying about what is happening.
    • Consider limiting your own exposure.  Too much increases our stress levels, also.  Certainly limit accessing news when your children and teens are nearby unless you are purposefully doing so.
  • Be patient. In times of stress, children/teens may have more trouble with their behavior, concentration, and attention. Even if they may not openly seek your understanding or support, they will want this. With adolescents who are searching for an increased sense of independence, it may be more difficult to ask for support and help. Children/teens will need a little extra patience, care, and love. (Be patient with yourself too!).
  • Extra help. Should reactions continue or at any point interfere with your children’s/teens’ abilities to function or you are worried, contact your Imam or your local mental health professionals who have expertise in trauma. Your family physician or pediatrician may be able to guild you to such experts. State mental health associations can also provide guidance.
  • Keep in mind:
    • School can be a place of safety or bullying. School/college is a place of learning, time with friends, time for school spirit and activities. But this setting may also bring other worries related to anti-Muslim prejudice, racism, deportation concerns, and hatred. Sadly, bullying behaviors are on the rise. Recent events may heighten worries and anxieties as they go to school/college. Be sure to discuss with your child/teen and college student what to do should they encounter bullying toward anyone at all: Tell someone. You may discuss other action steps such as befriending those who may be targeted. Silence should never be the correct response.
    • Religious services. With regular religious services, it is likely that all of us will be thinking of Christchurch and its aftermath and the visible rise of White supremacists, Right-wing terrorists and others will likely be part of conversations and sermons. Consider what your hope will be for your community. Consider what your hope will be for your children.
      • Security. Most Mosques will have security during worship services and religious school. Talk to your children and teens about safety. Be sure they know these individuals are there to protect congregants as well as to provide any help needed. This discussion may reduce some anxiety surrounding our religious activities.
    • Religious schools and community centers. Many Muslim children attend Muslim religious schools. Recent events and anti-Muslim attacks may result in increased concerns about safety and security in these settings. Learn about efforts to ensure safety and security. If you or your child ever feels uncomfortable about their safety, be sure he knows you are available to talk to about these worries or other emotions. Be sure you and your child know who to talk to about concerns at the school and/or community center.

Developed by:

Robin H. Gurwitch, Ph.D.
Duke University Medical Center
Center for Child and Family Health

Elana Newman, Ph.D.
R. M. McFarlin Professor of Psychology, University of Tulsa
Research Director, Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma
Co-Director, Tulsa Institute of Trauma, Adversity, and Injustice, University of Tulsa

Alyssa Rippy, Ph.D

Gregory Leskin, Ph.D.

For more information, please contact Dr. Gurwitch at [email protected] or Elana Newman at [email protected]. This is adapted from a version created after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, PA USA.