Talking to Your Children About Disasters

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My dad and step-mom live on a nice quiet block where nothing much happens, except when the grandchildren come to invade and cause a world-class ruckus. But two days after the horrific natural disasters that devastated southern Asia and East Africa, Fox News showed up at their door to ask if they had any pictures of the next-door neighbors. The news people explained that the father had lost his wife and daughter in the tsunamis that hit just after Christmas. Only he and a son, who did not travel to their native land, were left of the family.

While this tragedy affected relatively few Americans directly, the news resonates for all of us. As glued to the TV as my wife and I were to learn about the events, we turned it off when the children (all of them 6-years-old and younger) were around. We just didn't feel they needed to know about the deaths and didn't want to add the fear of tidal waves to their list of worries.

Had they caught wind of the disaster, we certainly would have made an effort to explain, since it is absolutely essential to acknowledge a child's fear, even if it's unlikely that a tsunami will ever affect them. And, the issue may still be one we will have to deal with, as the news continues to report the mortalities (more than 80,000 at this writing) and other related facts.

Since 9/11, psychologists and other mental-health experts have expounded on the ways to talk to children about disaster. With the mass of information available, here are a few suggestions that may help ease their kids' minds.

  1. Assure Them of Their Safety
    No parent can guarantee that they can keep their children safe from harm - but the children don't need to know that. What they do need to know is that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe. Especially for young kid, this blanket statement will calm them, giving them a tangible answer to their chief question of whether anything will hurt them.
  2. Stay Calm and Be Comforting
    Always remain calm as you explain things to them, so they do not sense any fear you might have. Couple your words with plenty of hugs and comforting touch so they sense the security blanket you really are.
  3. Encourage Questions
    By all means, invite them to ask any questions they may have so they can work out their thoughts with you. If you can't answer something, go and find an answer from an information resource, a friend, or doctor, if need be. You are your child's protector and source of information, which is usually a lot better than the mass media, which often sensationalizes things. If you do let them watch a news report, do it in small doses and do it together so you can answer those inevitable questions.
  4. Explain How Nature Works
    Nature is as beautiful as it is terrible. You don't want your child to worry that the natural world is out to get them. So, while you can explain how earthquakes and tsunamis work, also tell them how most human beings survive and build themselves back up. In addition, discuss with them how nature creates land and life in dramatic fashion and sustains us in the quietest ways.
  5. Help Them Help Others
    Children may feel powerless, not only in the face of nature, but because they are so far away from those affected. Choose a charity, be it the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders or some other organization, and have them give some of their allowance to send to those in need in the affected areas of Asia and Africa. You might even use this opportunity to teach them about the countries and cultures impacted.

By helping your children through their own fears of disaster, you will meet one of the great tests of parenthood. Bear in mind that if all you do is tell them that you will protect them with everything in your power, you will be doing very well by your children.

Here's to a safer and healthier New Year for all of us.