Stop re-traumatising three-yr-old, who witnessed a killing

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The ill-fated incident where a three-year-old child witnessed his grandfather’s heart-rending death has evoked a lot of emotions all around. People are uploading his pictures, sharing his videos, making sketches of him with blood oozing out of his eyes.-  I get that the reactions are sentimental and as a form of resistance. 

But for a moment are we even thinking about what we are actually doing in the name of resistance? We are traumatising the child all over again, he may actually forget this incident but if he is asked to narrate it again and again, it will only bring him more trauma. While his own family members, nears and dears are reinforcing him to remember and recall the episode, it is bound to have an impact on his mental health. 

Someone making his sketch with blood oozing out of his eyes, where does it lead us to? Are we respecting the individuality of this child? Will we do the same with our kids who may have witnessed a trauma? The answer would be ‘no’. Then why are we doing it with him?

We need to be sensible while sharing such content, sharing more and more videos of this sort will lead to people recording more such videos. We need to stop.

He witnessed his grandfather’s death but he may not have been able to attach meaning to it, but now after being reinforced, he repeats the narrative over and over again about what happened. What he witnessed wouldn’t have had provoked the reactions in him but over questioning will surely have its reactions.

His stress reactions to the event may be of repetitive play or talk about the event, tantrums, irritable outbursts, crying and tearfulness, increased fearfulness, re-emergence of early childhood behaviours such as bedwetting and thumb sucking. He can have disturbances in attachment patterns where he is likely to have difficulty in trusting others, bonding, and dependence on a few people. He may show signs of problems with managing emotions–may get easily upset or may face difficulty in calming down. He may display signs of poor impulse control, aggressive behaviour, oppositional behaviour, sleep disturbances.

The child is in a state of shock, interviewers need to be careful not to re-traumatize him by forcing him to describe in great detail what happened. Or even forcing him to talk can lead to re-traumatization. It’s important to be sensitive. He may not be able to narrate how he is feeling but by putting words in his mouth, like you got scared? You cried? 

We live in a conflict zone, where we on and off witness traumatic events. Children who are our future need to be protected. Adults have to be mindful of how much exposure their children have to coverage of traumatic events on TV, radio or internet. Also, what we discuss about the ongoing conflict situation in front of them needs to be taken care of. Seeing the frightening sights of an event being covered by the media or on social media can cause distress or worry for children. Being exposed to such news can make children feel unsafe and that something bad may happen to them or their family. They can spend a great deal of time thinking about the event and may discuss it with their friends and attach a meaning based on their understanding.

Parents and teachers have to play an active role to help children deal with trauma. Listen to children, their understanding of any traumatic event which they have witnessed personally or seen on television. Take their concerns and feelings seriously. Explain the event to the child in a way that is appropriate to their level of understanding and without going into frightening details. 

Keep children away from media and news of traumatic events or even discussions about the same, parents need to understand the negative consequences of such exposure which can be re-traumatising.  Engage children in play therapy where they would be able to process trauma in safe space. It will help them to experience happiness and healing. 

Change is a small step that we can take! If you have posted the picture of the little boy as your profile picture, put it down, if you have shared his videos—delete them. Publicising him needs to be stopped. Together we can create a ripple effect.

Zoya Mir is a M.Phil research scholar in clinical psychology at the Institute of Mental Health and Sciences, Srinagar.

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