This week’s blog will focus on the aftermath of the horrific earthquakes in the early hours of Monday 6th February 2023 in Turkey and Syria. You may have staff, children and families who have lost family and friends or are affected in other ways and who are struggling to cope. It is crucial therefore that we reach out to everyone affected. Together we can amplify the voices of those directly affected by the disaster by giving them space to tell their stories, express their pain, and communicate what they need, through acts of kindness, solidarity, support and care.
If children and young people have a strong emotional connection, you may find they ignore or block out what has happened – this should be respected. It would not be advisable to ignore what has happened and so it is important that we give them an opportunity and a safe space to process both the disaster and the consequences. PSHE, tutor time and citizenship lessons can provide this and an opportunity for discussions. You may find they are not ready to talk about it right now, because it may be difficult to process or comprehend the enormity of what happened, but they should be offered an appropriate space at a time that feels comfortable for them.
Adolescent children cannot always regulate emotions and reactions to death may be extremely intense and overwhelming. Showing distress and shock can take different forms, some not always obvious. It is crucial that pastoral care is available. It could go both ways; they may have appropriate language to identify feelings or be reluctant to talk and deny feelings. This can be difficult particularly if they reject offers of support. If so, it could be because they want to fit in and not appear different to their friends. Others need a listening ear to help and support them to understand that their feelings are normal.
Any discussions can focus on what has happened, what the current situation is, and what could happen next, in order to give young people an opportunity to explore and discuss the disaster in a structured format. Material such as appropriately selected newspaper articles can stimulate and focus discussions, using mindmaps to record thoughts, questions or messages. Group and wider discussions will enable the expression of feelings in a supportive environment.
Feelings can include empathy for the injured and those who have died and/or anger about whether anything could have been done to prevent the tragedy. Encourage children to reflect on their feelings, they may be experiencing a wide spectrum of emotions, the encouragement will enable critical thinking. Children may also need time and space to work out how they want to process what has happened.
It is important to respond to children who may want to talk about what has happened and respect the child’s way of grieving. Younger children may be afraid that a similar event will happen closer to home or to their family and friends. Reassurance that such events are very rare and that it is highly unlikely it will happen to them or someone they know, is important. Primary aged children being naturally curious may be full of questions about what they have seen or heard in the media. Answering their questions in an age- appropriate way to allay fears is crucial, but without showing or talking about graphic details. Other ways you can support children to cope include:
- Writing a letter to someone they may have lost, telling them all the things they want to say to them
- Writing a letter to their teacher or their parent or anyone who is supporting them, so that they know what they are going through
- Keeping a diary or journal of how they feel
- Painting or drawing pictures, writing stories, songs or poems
- Explaining they shouldn’t worry that it is wrong to have a good time and reassure them it is fine to feel happy and enjoy something, it doesn’t take away of how much they care about someone affected or that they have lost as a result of the tragedy.
When children begin to understand that death means they will not see someone again, they begin to realise it happens to everyone. This can increase their anxiety not only for their friends and loved ones but also their themselves. Children may be curious about death and may need to talk about death a few times to gain understanding. Others may struggle to express their feelings or find any words. Grief can be expressed in a number of ways, not least behaviour, becoming withdrawn, fearful, showing anger and aggression and feelings of giving up and isolation. It’s hard to know what to say, but reaching out to someone bereaved so that they know you are available to talk and listen, if they feel comfortable to do so, can be incredibly supportive and helpful. Helping children and young people to express feelings, offering the safety of having a set routine, structure, boundaries and reassurance may go a long way to helping them feel safe. They may need reassurance that death means there is no pain, hunger or cold and also that it is not their fault that something has happened.
Some circumstances can make a bereavement more traumatic. Feelings of grief and loss can be exacerbated by:
- Neglect or abuse
- Domestic abuse
- Contextual abuse eg serious violence in the community, child sexual exploitation, child criminal exploitation
- Looked after children, fostering or private fostering arrangements
- Poverty and deprivation
- War or displacement
- Neurodevelopmental or learning difficulties
- Being a young carer
Other things your school can do
- Offer the use of reflective spaces, eg a minute’s silence, reflective time in assembly or within class, lighting candles, playing soothing music or writing prayers or non-religious reflections
- A minute’s silence or similar reflective time in a whole-school assembly or in class at the same time in the day (this could tie in with any national ‘official’ silences)
- Creating a remembrance book or a school display or holding a fundraising event for a relevant charity.
- Offer sources of support, Childline, Winston’s Wish, a trusted member of staff or peer support
For all of us, it can take time to process events, particularly on the scale of this tragedy. It is important to give young people an opportunity for follow-up discussions – perhaps a question box for pupils, a specially set up generic email address that is monitored daily. This will enable them to leave questions that may occur to them over time and also signpost to sources of support. A disaster of this magnitude, especially one where we feel a ‘connection’, can have a lasting impact on individuals and communities. Through the PSHE and wider curriculum, schools can provide opportunities to listen to children and provide support and can provide a forum to support community cohesion. perhaps, even if only in a small way, help to limit the damage inflicted by such an event.
Don’t forget yourself and your colleagues. Your or their friends and/or family could be affected. Just leading a discussion or activity with children in relation to the tragedy can have an impact in itself and be triggering. It is important to have an opportunity for a debrief with colleagues, to share questions children may have asked or any issues raised. Staff should also have an opportunity to reflect, share thoughts, grieve, or seek support.
My thoughts and condolences are with everyone who may be affected by this devastating tragedy. Thank you for your work to support children and young people emotionally and practically during this difficult time. Remember that even if only in a small way, you can help to limit the damage inflicted by such an event.
Resources, Help and Support
The Employee Assistance Programme – support for teachers and education staff (educationsupport.org.uk) is available 24/7 so please bear it in mind if you need emotional support.
- NHS Live Well
- Mental health at work – Mind
- Take action in your workplace – Time To Change
- Mental Health Training – Rethink Mental Illness
- Mental Health At Work
For Children and Families
- https://www.childline.org.uk/ – 0800 1111
- Advice for Parents and Carers – Manchester University (available in Turkish, Arabic and English)
- Supporting pupils through bereavement – a school resource
- Anna Freud Centre Children’s Mental Health Toolkit
- Recovering from Critical Incidents – UK Trauma Council
- https://www.winstonswish.org/ – support for grieving children
- Grief & Loss | Parents Guide To Support | YoungMinds
- Helping someone who is experiencing grief – Mind
- Child Bereavement UK