How do you talk to children about murder?

How do you talk to children about murder?
Ana Kriegel

It is difficult for us to fully comprehend the depths of sadness, distress and outrage that the murder of Ana Kriegel has created across Ireland, writes Paul Gilligan

We cannot imagine the impact it has had on her parents. Many of us are struggling to make sense of such a merciless, violent act.

Given the extensive media coverage, children and young people are as aware of the details of what happened as adults, and some have become completely immersed in it.

In the coming days, weeks and months, it will be important that we provide our children with as much psychological support as they require to try to make sense of and deal with the aftermath.

The first and most important priority will be to provide our children with as much comfort and love as possible. This should be determined by our children’s emotional needs, as they express them to us.

Children and young people often personalise traumatic events, feeling that they could be at risk. It is important to reassure them that these events occur rarely, while also exploring with them how we keep them safe and the things they can do to keep themselves safe.

We will need to be prepared to discuss the facts around the murder, but only to the extent our children wish to discuss them. When events are covered extensively in the media and we, as adults, find them distressing, we sometimes assume our children will find them equally distressing.

However, children often have their own priorities in life, which will take precedent. The key to protecting our children’s emotional wellbeing is maintaining an open approach to discussing issues that are important or worrying to them..

Our children’s ability to understand and integrate information will be dependent on their age and cognitive ability. We therefore need to keep information and discussion as age appropriate as possible.

The best way to ensure information is given in an age-appropriate way is to take the lead from our children, answering their questions, giving them the information they seek, and ensuring they understand what we are saying.

Geraldine and Patrick Kriegel leaving the court today. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie
Geraldine and Patrick Kriegel leaving the court today. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

It is important that we limit the information we give our children to what we know, and that we are not afraid to say there are things we “don’t know”. This is most relevant to the question of “why” a person or people would commit such violent, horrendous acts.

It is better to say we don’t know, rather than giving inaccurate information, just to provide short-term answers and comfort. In particular, we should avoid attributing acts to a person having mental health difficulties, when we are not sure this is the case.

The best way to provide our children with emotional support is to contain and control our own emotions. If we allow our anger or upset to spill into our discussions with our children, this will prevent them from expressing their true emotions, fearing they will upset us further or thinking they should feel the same as us. If our children ask us how we are feeling, it is important to be honest with them, without becoming overly emotional.

Given the harrowing nature of this murder, there has been an outpouring of outrage and anger. It is difficult for us to understand how and why such a violent act could occur in our society. Our children and young people are most susceptible to this.

Protecting them from emotional trauma, while supporting them to understand what is emerging, will be important.

How do you talk to children about murder?

While murders such as this are rare in any society, when they do occur, they, quite rightly, have a significant societal impact.

Now that the court case is completed, we owe it to Ana Kriegel to gain a comprehensive understanding of why her young life was taken so brutally. For the sake of Irish society and, particularly, for our young people, we need to be prepared to learn the hard and painful lessons.

It is vital we support and protect our children and young people with our love, guidance and honesty.

Paul Gilligan is the chief executive of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services.

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