Bourke Street: Parents should be wary of taking children to memorial, say experts

Vigil held for Bourke Street victims

Thousands gather in Melbourne's CBD to attend a vigil in memory of the Bourke Street tragedy victims.

Photos of young children placing flowers and soft toys at the Bourke Street memorial are among the few heart-warming images associated with Friday's tragedy. 

But is it wise to expose your children to such memorials?

Child psychologists and experts in trauma have advised parents against taking young children to the Bourke Street memorial, or the smaller memorials that dot Bourke Street, marking the places where victims died.

A child's drawing among the tributes left for victims outside the RACV Club on Bourke Street.
A child's drawing among the tributes left for victims outside the RACV Club on Bourke Street. Photo: Penny Stephens

That is unless the child witnessed the rampage, or was present at the time.

"In that case, it could be helpful to visit the memorial in terms of doing something positive," said Dr Katie Waters, a paediatric clinical psychologist.

"If your child was not involved, then I wouldn't recommend taking them to the memorial, because I don't think it serves a purpose … and it might make the child more anxious. The best advice would be not to go."

Dr Waters said that for children who had already visited the memorial it was important for parents to help them return to a normal routine as soon as possible.

"It's not that parents have done a bad thing, and some parents might feel like that's best for their child, as they are the expert on their child," Dr Waters said.

"But after doing that, it's really important to get their child back into their regular routine."

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Community psychologist Heather Gridley, of the Australian Psychological Society, agreed, saying it was important to limit children's exposure to media coverage of the event.

The younger children are, the less they needed to know, she said.

"We don't want to expose children to those things if we can help it," Ms Gridley said.

A soft toy with a child's drawing at the Bourke Street memorial.
A soft toy with a child's drawing at the Bourke Street memorial. 

"By all means talk to children to get a sense of what they have taken in. The bit that they take in isn't necessarily the bit that we expect."

Ms Gridley said that after the Lindt cafe siege in Sydney, her colleague's child, who was about five years old, asked only: "Mummy, what's Lindt?"

Psychologist Lauren Ban, of Victorian Counselling and Psychological Services, said it was not necessarily inappropriate to take children to the memorial. "But it's the way that it's done that's important," she said.

Soft toys have been left outside the RACV Club in Bourke Street.
Soft toys have been left outside the RACV Club in Bourke Street. Photo: Penny Stephens

"Parents have to be really honest with themselves and about their own response and their own emotion in conveying information, because children are very sensitive and they pick up on that emotion. If that information is conveyed in a fear-based way, they're going to pick up on that fear.

"Children are most sensitive to their parents' emotional state and that's what they'll be tuning in to."

Dr Waters said it was important for children to know the event was over and everyone was now safe.

A teddy bear among the flowers on Bourke Street.
A teddy bear among the flowers on Bourke Street. Photo: Paul Jeffers

"For some children, just being told there was an accident is enough," she said. "But other kids will want to ask questions and will want to know who it was, or what happened, and you can answer those questions in a way that is appropriate for their age.

"With younger children, emphasising that the thing that happened is over and everyone is safe now is important."

Tips for parents and carers from the Australian Psychological Society

  • Talk about what happened at a level that children can understand. It is not necessary to share gruesome details of the event, but enough truthful and simple information to clear up any misinformation. 
  • Encourage children to talk about their thoughts and feelings about what happened.
  • Look out for possible stress reactions that show the children are unsettled or distressed.
  • Maintain good routines.
  • Talk to them about the helpers and heroes that help make the world a better place.
  • Foster hope.
  • Pay attention to your own reactions and talk privately with trusted adults if you need to air your own feelings and reactions to the event.

Donations for the immediate families of those killed can be made via the website www.vic.gov.au/bourkestreet.html

For urgent support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. Witnesses and victims requiring support can also call the Victim's Support Helpline on 1800 819 817.