by Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman
Your six-year-old has just seen video footage of devastating destruction including collapsed buildings, crushed cars, and homes under water, all vivid images resulting from the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Your teen sits transfixed watching the numbers of dead and injured mount. At the dinner table your fifth grader asks, "Can anything like that happen to us, Dad?"
How is a parent to respond under such circumstances? What should you say? What should you do? How do you deal with your children's fears without increasing them? Is it possible to reassure them at a time when you, yourself, are horrified by the images of intense pain and grief you see on the faces of parents halfway around the world?
Yes, you feel empathy for the survivors who have lost loved ones, homes, and jobs. Yes, you are extremely grateful that your children are safe in your comfortable home as the horrific images continue to flow from your television screen. And, yes, you can use this tragic situation to help your children learn lessons of love and compassion and about the indestructible nature of the human spirit.
Once children have seen the images of tragedy and suffering, debriefing is essential-the sooner the better. By debriefing, we mean answering their questions, providing information, asking questions, and reflecting their feelings.
Provide the scientific information they're asking for. Tell your children in age-appropriate language what you know about how nature can create an earthquake, tidal wave, tornado, hurricane, or volcanic eruption. Keep this part factual. You can even use books or magazines to assist you in providing information.
Tell your children the effects of the natural disaster. Talk about the destruction that was created by nature's fury. This is a good time to make the connection between cause and effect.
Limit what you say to what your children actually saw on TV, and provide answers to their directly asked questions. Too much information at this point can increase their fright and worry. The goal is to be brief and accurate and to provide them with the specific information they're looking for. If you fail to give them information, if you fail to debrief, children's brains will fill in the blanks. Better to fill in those gaps yourself with factual knowledge than to have your children fill them with their imaginations.
Concentrate on feelings. Your children will be seeing a wide range of feelings expressed during TV coverage of such events. They will see sadness, panic, grief, relief, joy, depression, frustration and desperation. As a result, they will personally experience unexpressed and often unrecognized feelings.
Help your child identify the emotions. When you sense they are feeling empathy, sadness, or pain, say so. Tell them, "You seem deeply saddened about this," or "You sound afraid that this might happen to us." Children are starving for feeling recognition and this is a great time to supply it.
Honor strong emotion shown on TV by talking about it. Acknowledge the extreme sadness and grief that people are experiencing. Refrain from being an adult who ignores the grief of others and refuses to acknowledge it. Do not treat hurting human beings as if they are invisible. Talk about your own feelings. Tell your children about the sympathy and pain you feel for the losses others are suffering. Allow your children to hear and see you express feelings. By doing so, you're helping them acquire a feeling vocabulary they can use their entire lives.
When you communicate your own feelings and honor the feelings of your children for people around the world, you teach them important lessons about the human condition. You help them appreciate how we are all more alike than different. You help them see that we are all connected, no matter how distant we seem. You help them learn that we are all one.