Talking to Kids About World Natural Disasters
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina television and other media are depicting graphic scenes of devastation and destruction, with images of dislocated families, weeping survivors, destroyed homes, flooded neighborhoods, and desperate rescues. Significant loss of life and missing people have also been reported.
Parents wonder if, when, and how to explain these events to their children. Kids' questions and concerns are likely to be tough to answer, but as with all important discussions, keeping communication lines open is critical and honesty is essential. Some concerns don't get settled quickly, and more than one talk may be necessary as events unfold.
Be sensitive to children who may be particularly susceptible to experiencing worry, anxiety, shock and stress. These include children who:
- live in areas that have previously experienced or may experience a natural disaster, such a hurricane, flood, volcanic eruption, forest fire, etc. or have relatives in the afflicted areas.
- have previously experienced a personal stressful or traumatic event such as a parental divorce, separation from parents, illness or death in the family.
- have had a previous negative reaction to a man-made disaster such as a war, bombing, loss of a parent or friend in a catastrophic event.
- have a learning or emotional problem.
Adults should reassure them that every effort is being made to insure their safety and, particularly for young children, be specific about the ways in which their families, local officials and state and federal government take precautions to insure their safety.
- Wait for the child's questions or for an opportune moment to bring up the topic. Be aware of your own reactions-shock, dismay, anger-since children are apt to reflect the attitudes of their parents.
- Consider the child's individual personality style and temperament. Some children are naturally more prone to be fearful. News showing graphic instances of the catastrophe may heighten a child's feelings of anxiety. Some children, preoccupied with their own lives, will simply not pay much attention to the news. At the other extreme, some children ignore the suffering depicted. They can get overloaded and become numb due to the repetitive nature of the reports. Exposure to other forms of violence, such as video games, makes it more difficult to understand the reality of the news events.
- Adjust your response to the age of the child. Children personalize the news and interpret events in relation to their own lives. Young children may confuse facts with their fantasies and fears. They may not realize that the same images are shown many times and may think the disasters are happening over and over again. School-age children may equate scenes from a scary movie with news footage and magnify the personal effect of news events. Teens consider issues of ethics and may feel a need to take action such as becoming involved with a charitable aid organization.
The following are common questions reflecting parents' concerns and some possible answers:
Can we just ignore the news and hope the children don't see scary images?
Although it's tempting to protect children from unpleasant realities, ignoring the news, particularly for school-age children, is probably not an option. They are likely to see the images in the media or hear about them from others. Letting kids keep scared feelings to themselves can be more damaging than frank discussion.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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