Karmen Maikalu: Supporting kids in Estonia's recent school bomb threat wave

Karmen Maikalu.
Karmen Maikalu. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

Last week, Estonian schools were hit with several waves of mass emails involving bomb threats. While no acute threat was identified, parents, teachers and other caregivers should know how to broach the subject with them, to give them space to process their feelings about the threats, including through play, but also when and where to turn for more help in supporting them. Karmen Maikalu, chair of the Estonian Association of School Psychologists (EKPÜ), provides tips.

Estonian schools, kindergartens and several other institutions were hit with two separate large-scale waves of spam last week that included bomb threats. No acute threat to children's safety was determined, but the messages alone nonetheless caused considerable fear and panic. It's possible that more such mass spam threats may be sent again in the future.

Various fake photos and videos have already been circulating among kids of a bomb allegedly having gone off in an Estonian school. No such thing has happened, but it's nonetheless already scared many children. Unfortunately, some news channels have also published ambiguous headlines that can create unnecessary fear and anxiety in anyone who doesn't read the article.

The following are some recommendations for parents and teachers on how to handle spammed bomb threats.

Dear parents, please explain to children in an age-appropriate way what spam is, what false information is, what's going on. You can draw parallels to everyday life, such as cyberbullying. What's crucial is communicating that such behavior is wrong and that they cannot scare other people. Talk to kids about how to distinguish between fake and real news.

Encourage kids to check their info against news channels (such as ERR's online news portal) or by asking trustworthy adults as well as not to share fake content. Teachers are talking about this at school as well, but talking about it at home is absolutely necessary too.

Listen, answer questions, admit if you don't know

Please keep an eye on your kids. Some kids may be very bothered by the past week's events and info, and children's reactions to scary info can vary. Some may want to talk a lot about it, but others may withdraw instead. Thus, an adult could initiate a conversation with older children themselves, such as by asking, "Have you heard anything more about those bomb threats over the weekend? What do you think about what's been going on?"

Don't start immediately explaining anything; instead, first listen to what the child thinks and is thinking about, and what feelings they have about the matter, what questions they have. Encourage the child to ask. Don't ignore hard questions. Provide age-appropriate responses. If you don't know how to answer a question, say so. What's important is maintaining a trusting relationship with the child, to maintain contact with them, and to try to understand what's going on inside them.

Keep an eye on kids' play and conversations. If they include bomb-related topics or jokes, don't ignore that, but don't stop them either — rather, it's essential to allow kids to talk out, draw or even express what's on their minds through play.

Adults should use these opportunities to continue these conversations and ask what the kids are playing and drawing, and let them talk and ask questions. At the same time, it's crucial to explain to kids that jokes about bombs, for example, can very much scare some people, and that they need to be careful with jokes like that.

Unexpected changes in a child's behavior may be a warning sign for extreme anxiety, such as becoming withdrawn or gloomy, their behavior becoming aggressive or defiant, or a child suddenly developing trouble sleeping or refusing to go to school, etc.

Also at particular risk are children who are very withdrawn, who have recently experienced major life changes — such as a move, their parents splitting up, a loved one's severe illness or death, etc. — or who aren't getting enough support at home, such as due to their parents' own struggles with anxiety. It is very important that teachers and parents share information with one another about how a child is coping, and about their reactions. If needed, a teacher or school psychologist can speak with the child. You can also contact the school psychologist hotline 1226 (link in Estonian) for support as well.

Refugees re-experiencing trauma

Dear teachers, in addition to all of the above, please pay particularly close attention to students and parents from Ukraine, for whom this situation may bring back memories of the war in their homeland. Many of them are re-experiencing past traumatic experiences.

War refugees need every assurance right now that they are safe; it's likely this will need to be emphasized repeatedly. In the current context, they may be particularly sensitive to all kinds of changes, the unexpected and everything else. So take that into consideration.

If needed, seek help from a school psychologist. In addition to the Estonian-language hotline, Russian-language services are available every Tuesday at 1227 as well.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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