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Tsunami Aftermath: Talking to Your Kids About Disasters

What do you say exactly?

The news out of Japan – an 8.9 magnitude earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami, tens of thousands of people believed to be dead and now explosions at nuclear power plants – is a lot for an adult to absorb, let alone a child. One parent shares the importance of saying the right thing when talking to children about tragic news.

As a parent, I struggle with what to tell my kids about tragedies, and natural disasters. Sadly, there have been many natural and man-made disasters in their short lives. Devastating earthquakes in China, India, Iran, Pakistan, New Zealand, the Deep Water Horizon spill, Sept. 11;  these are all events weaved into the fabric of my children’s lives.

After Katrina hit, my daughter was scared. “Are we going to have a hurricane Mama? Why aren’t people helping them?” she asked.  I explained that it was very unlikely that we’d have a Hurricane like Katrina, and I couldn’t tell her why there wasn’t more help there, but that we could help by sending money to the American Red Cross and praying for the people there. I explained a little about relief organizations and what they do. 

After the Haitian earthquake my daughter came to me, “Mama here,” she said thrusting all the money she had saved for an iPod Touch into my hand. “Give it to the Haitians please.“ Of course I am brimming over with pride that my daughter has such a good heart, but it’s not an entirely selfless act. 

Children like us can experience a feeling of helplessness when faced with a tragedy. They also pick up on our anxiety and the tension we feel. My daughter handing over her money was a way for her to feel less helpless, and to regain a sense of control.   

Experts say it's extremely important to be open and honest with children about tragedies, in an age appropriate manner. Most importantly, reassure them of their own safety as often as necessary.  Monitor their media viewing closely; some images of tragedy can be extremely frightening to children of all ages. Consider turning off the news, when children are around.    

Children with pre-existing emotional problems should be monitored closely, as their conditions can be exacerbated in aftermath of tragedies.

Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something if you don’t. But reassure them that tragedies are rare, and even though you don’t know the answer to their question, you will do everything you can to keep them safe.

Older kids may try and play off their reaction to a tragedy but they are affected as well, their media exposure to the disaster should be monitored as well this includes Internet coverage. 

Encouraging your child to give a portion of their allowance to a relief organization, take part in a fundraising event for victims of the tragedy or helping with food or clothing drives to benefit the victims is another way to help them regain a sense of control. Reassuring them that you will protect them will help restore their sense of safety.

For further information on ways to help your children in the aftermath of a disaster please visit: The Red Cross (view the pdf document Talking to Children About Disasters) or About Our Kids.

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