Ashling Murphy killing: How to talk to your children about it

Shielding those under seven from news may be wise but older children could have questions

A vigil in memory of Ashling Murphy, Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

A vigil in memory of Ashling Murphy, Tullamore, Co Offaly. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

As the upset and anger surrounding the killing of Ashling Murphy ripples through our families and society, it can feel hard to explain this to our children. Such a tragic and violent murder can shake our faith in the society in which we raise our children and we can wonder how best to support them. As a parent it is important to be proactive and to reflect how best to discuss tragic news with our children depending on their age and maturity.

Acknowledge your own feelings

Before talking to children, it is a good idea to first acknowledge and process your own feelings. This makes it easier to listen and respond to your child’s needs when you talk to them. Like most people you likely feel shocked at the murder, but there may be some particular aspects that particularly trigger you. Perhaps you are outraged at the violence in broad daylight which makes you feel unsafe or fearful for your children. Or perhaps you have had a violent or tragic experience in your own past which now comes to the fore in your mind with all the original emotions. If you feel strongly, take time to process your feelings. If possible, take time to talk with a partner or friend before you talk with your children.

Children under seven years

As a general rule, I suggest that children under seven should be largely protected from tragic news from the outside world that does not directly affect them or their family. If they hear you talking (particularly if you are angry or upset) or if they view a tragic news story on TV, they might wonder if this is going to happen to their family and then feel upset and unsafe. As a result it is usually a good idea to switch off the bad news on TV and to keep your adult conversations private from them.

As a parent the key is to listen and respond to your child’s individual needs.
As a parent the key is to listen and respond to your child’s individual needs

Children aged 7-11 years

As children get older they become much more aware of the outside world and tragic news can easily filter into their view especially a big news story such as a high-profile murder. As individuals, children will respond differently to the news. Some will ask questions and want to know more and some will pay little attention and simply be focused on their childhood concerns. Some will be sensitive to the emotional tragedy and some will just view what happened in matter-of-fact terms. As a parent the key is to listen and respond to your child’s individual needs. If you do talk about it, make sure to use concrete childlike simple language that they can understand.

For example, if they ask about the emotional vigils on TV, you can explain – “sadly, a teacher was killed and everyone is upset and meeting to say goodbye and support her family”. Think through how you might respond to difficult questions such as, “why would a man kill a teacher?” or “will they kill someone again?”

At this age, concrete reassuring explanations can help – “sadly, there some bad people out there, but don’t worry the police will catch them and we will be safe”. You can also focus on the positive side of the news – “lots of people are meeting to try and make things safer for everyone in the future and that is a good thing”.

Adolescents 12+

Adolescents and teenagers generally prefer to taken seriously and treated as adults. You can have a relatively open and adult conversation about the tragic events and news stories that surround them and they can understand context and think through subtleties. Just like the adults around them, they will have their own thoughts and feelings about what has happened and some will be more affected than others.

As a parent it is important to check in and listen to them. If they don’t raise the subject themselves you can start an opening conversation with “that was a terrible tragedy in the news, wasn’t it . . . what do you think about it?” Some teenagers might be upset about what happened so it is important to give them support. Some might be misinformed (often via social media) so it is important to make sure they have correct information. Watching the news together on TV or sharing a link to a good online news article can be a good way to ensure this. These discussions provide the opportunity to debate real and important issues with your teenagers.

You can encourage your boys to recognise gender-based violence and to have empathy for just how unsafe women and girls might feel. You can encourage your girls to articulate their fears and thoughts and then discuss together what might help them. One positive outcome of this terrible tragedy might be a national conversation as to how gender-based violence can be addressed in society.

This is an important conversation you can also start in your families. 

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See solutiontalk.ie