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Dr Mary O’Kane How to Talk to Children about the Ashling Murphy Tragedy

I have received many messages from parents asking how to speak to their children about the tragic death of Ashling Murphy. As many schools are holding a minutes silence in remembrance of Ashling this morning, I wanted to share this information with parents who might want to have this difficult conversation with their children.As adults we are struggling to make any sense of the violent murder of Ashling. It can be difficult to manage our own upset, worry and fear, while also trying to explain senseless violence to our children. At times like this often we focus on a desire to protect children from information about this awful event, but most of our children will have heard or seen news reports about Ashling or listened to adult conversations about her. They quickly pick up on our fear and concern and it is normal for them to be worried and upset. Try to limit their exposure to the details of the case, particularly for younger children. However, even if you limit news exposure in your home, your children may hear further details in school. It is better for our children that we have a conversation with them about this awful event, than for them to try to process what they are hearing by themselves.Clearly your conversation will be different based on the age of your children. But start by gently bringing up the conversation and asking them if they have heard about Ashling’s death. For younger children answer questions as honestly as you can, without giving them too many details. Don’t avoid questions but answer them in an age-appropriate way – everyone in Ireland is very sad that this teacher has died. Try to let them lead the conversation, and do not give any more detail than necessary. For older primary school children, again the most important thing is to listen to their fears or worries and use age-appropriate language to respond. Be as honest as you can, a young teacher has been killed, we are thinking of all her family and friends. Try to remind them of the good in the world. The police are working on finding out who did this, people in the community are trying to support her family, and across Ireland people are coming together to show her family we care. Teenagers will have a much better understanding of the tragedy. Try to have a conversation with them about their emotions and be prepared for these conversations to move to wider issues around gender-based violence. This act won’t make sense to children, just as it doesn’t make sense to adults. It is OK to say that you really don’t understand why someone would do such awful things – particularly if asked why a person would commit such a violent act. Try not to dismiss their worries but do tell them that attacks like this are very rare. Naturally there has been an outpouring of emotion, online and face to face, when speaking about this awful event. But try not to allow your own anger to take over your discussions with your children. Instead, allow them time and space to openly tell you how they feel. There is no right or wrong way to feel, they should be able to express their true emotions [for example, their primary emotion might be fear that this could happen to their own mum]. If they are very upset:Doing something to show support for Ashling and her family could help: Whether it is lighting a candle, signing a book of condolences, remembering the family in their bedtime prayers, can help children feel they are doing something positive during a difficult time. Spend extra time with them: Particularly before bedtime, spend some extra time reading or playing with them just to connect with them, and send them to sleep with a sense of security. Our children need us to listen at these times, to stay close and reassure them.Breathing Exercises and Mindfulness: Breathing exercises can help to find calmness and stillness. Research shows that practicing mindfulness can have a positive effect on wellbeingGet support: Most importantly, our children need to know that when they feel sad, they should tell someone. The people in your life who believe in you like your parents, friends, and teachers can help you when you feel sad. In summary, the most important thing is that we have these conversations (at an age-appropriate level) to help our children try to process and cope with a very frightening event. You know your child best, so allow them to talk, listen to their feelings, and be prompted by their questions. Reassure them that these events are rare, and remember you are their port in a storm. Your calm presence will help them to process this event, and their connection to you will help them to register safety.