Talking to Kids About World Natural Disasters (page 2)
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.
Should I let my children watch television?
Research has shown that watching media coverage, especially repeated viewing, can create stress for children even when they are not directly exposed to disaster. Television viewing for young children should be limited. Parents should watch with their children in order to deal with their reactions and to be available to share their reactions and correct misinformation. Assure them that chances of a similar disaster occurring in their area are remote.
How can we help children deal with their worry and shock?
Continue with established routines. When appropriate, talk about things children might do, such as investigating preventive procedures in place in their community, participating in community relief organizations.
How can we help children feel safe?
For children who want more information and need reassurance, parents can talk about the scientific advances made to anticipate, avert and deal with natural disasters. The role of world cooperation through agencies such as the Red Cross, the United Nations Relief Fund and others can be emphasized. Older children may wish to discuss other natural disasters, the way children's lives can be affected, and ways in which they can express their concern and support for victims of disaster.
Other Useful Resources
About the NYU Child Study Center
The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at www.aboutourkids.org/.
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.
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