Disasters occur. We have all seen it happen: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Earthquake in Haiti, and now the Tsunami in Japan. It’s often difficult to know how to speak with children about these situations. Emotional reactions to these types of situations will vary in nature and severity from child to child. These responses are impacted by a child’s age, temperament, previous experiences and personality, along with how closely impacted by the disaster they are. Adults need to be mindful that there are multiple levels of children’s concerns. Some will want to know about why the earth was shaking; they will want to understand the wall of water, the cracks in the ground. Others will fear for their safety and the safety of others. There is curiosity about all of it, and how it may (or may not) happen to them. Children’s questions are likely going to be difficult to answer, and keeping the communication lines open is critical and honesty is essential. Be open with your children and provide simple, accurate information to the questions. Wait for the question to be asked; don’t assume you know what your child wants to know…you may start providing information he/she isn’t quite ready for. Provide reassurance, but don’t deny the seriousness of the situation. Listen to what your child says and how he/she says it: a lot of the time there is some subtext that you can pick up and can discuss the underlying feelings with your child. Be prepared to repeat discussions over and over.
Also, it’s important to remember that you have to adjust your response to the age of the child. We know that children often personalize the information they see, interpreting events in relation to their own lives. Young children may confuse the facts, turning them into fantasies or fears. In fact, they may not realize that they are seeing the same images over and over and may think that it is happening again and again. School-aged children may think the news footage is like a scary movie and interpret it in a personal way. Teens may feel the need to take action in some way, such as participating in a charitable organization. Although the temptation will be to keep the images from your children, they are going to get the information from somewhere. You don’t want them to keep their scared, confused or nervous feeling bottled up, so encourage them to have a frank and open discussion. In the end this is best for everyone.
Although you may want to protect your children from pain and sadness, the reality is, they will, most likely, get the information from somewhere. It’s important to be honest without saying too much. That being said, you can’t shy away from sharing the information with your children. Just be aware of what they may be able to process. Listen to what your child is asking you and provide that information, no more and no less. If you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to acknowledge that, and then, together with your child, investigate (as long as it is an appropriate thing to examine). As adults, you need to find ways to provide reassurance without losing sight of reality. Be mindful in your explanations, that although it is unlikely that this could happen here (if it is, in fact, unlikely), you will do everything you can to keep your child safe. If possible, even come up with a safety plan for your family.
In addition to providing the facts, it’s important to know how to comfort them when they are afraid. Children may feel overwhelmed and be scared. Validate those feelings. Discuss why they are scared and provide reassurance that the chances that this will happen near them is remote. In order to help children deal with their worry and shock most effectively, continue with established routines as much as possible. For some children, taking action, feeling like they are helping those who have been impacted by the tragedy may be a great intervention. Talk with your child about how he/she may want to help. It often makes your children feel less powerless. Also, as parents, be aware of how the tragedy is impacting YOU. Your children will pick up on your stress and anxiety, so be aware of how you are feeling and be sure to get support of your own if you need it.
Also consider how much exposure you want your children to have to the news or other media covering the disaster. Research has shown that watching media coverage, especially repeated viewing can create stress for children, even when they are not directly related to the disaster. Especially for your younger child, limit the amount of television viewing that occurs. Additionally, watch with your children so that you can explain what is happening and correct misinformation. Some children may want to watch videos of the tsunami on youtube or other news sites. Watch with them and answer their questions. Maybe even use it as an opportunity to learn more about what a tsunami is, how it is created, etc. Again, be sure to answer the questions your child poses, not the ones you anticipate being asked. You don’t want to provide information that isn’t being requested (and that your child is not ready for).
Lastly, consider what is too much for you children to handle. For some children will have an increase in worry, stress or sadness. They may, similarly to adults, experience a sense of helplessness. Some children may be more susceptible to experiencing worry, anxiety and shock and need to be monitored more closely than others. Children who may be of greater concern include those who live in areas that have been impacted previously by a disaster or some kind or have family members who have been impacted. Children who have experiences a personal stressful or traumatic event (loss of a loved one, divorce of parents) may be particularly at risk for a more intense emotional reaction to disaster. Also, children who have learning or emotional problems may have difficulty processing the vast amount of information being thrown at them.
Pay attention to how your children are processing the information. If you notice that they are having greater difficulty maintaining routines or following their normal schedules, if you notice that he/she can only talk about the disaster and focuses on it significantly, or if you notice that your child is clingier than he has been, sit down and talk about it. If these behaviors persist past a few weeks, especially once the media attention dies down, speak with your pediatrician, the guidance counselor at school, or seek some sort of professional help, as it seems that the problem is bigger than just an immediate worry related to the tragedy.
Just to consider for your family, come up with a safety plan. Even though this type of disaster may ever happen where you live, have a plan if there is an emergency. Where will you meet? Who will call whom? Does everyone know how to use 911. Check in every few months to ensure that everyone knows the plan.
Here is a link to the clip from my appearance on The Early Show discussing this topic:
If you would like to donate to relief efforts in Japan, please find information as to how here: www.redcross.org