Friday, March 18, 2011

How to Speak to Children About Natural Disaster

A big thank you to Maureen Murphy of The Children's School for this guidance.

Dear Friends,

Like you, we are stunned and heartbroken by the events that have been unfolding in Japan since last week.  The devastation and suffering are hard for all of us to comprehend, a fact that has given us pause here at The Children’s School because we know that children, to varying degrees, are aware that something “bad” has happened and no doubt have questions and concerns.  Even with limited media exposure, children are likely to harbor very real fears about whether or not the same thing could happen in the towns in which they live.  In light of this, we thought that it would be a good idea to send along the advice of some child development experts on how to deal with your children’s questions and worries.

Large-scale natural disasters—and the ensuing television coverage—can be very scary for children.  To help them process information about these types of events, Nadja Reilly, Ph.D., a psychologist at Children’s Hospital in Boston, suggests that parents turn off the TV and talk to their children in order to combat feelings of helplessness.  Why?  Although they may occur thousands of miles away, natural disasters can be deeply upsetting for children.  “In general, you want to limit kids’ media exposure immediately after a disaster and set aside a quiet time to talk about it,” Dr. Reilly says. “It can be traumatizing to see those images over and over again, so a talk with a parent can be a good way to help children put the extent of a disaster in context.”  Limiting the family’s use of media immediately after a disaster is also good for children in terms of seeing appropriate behavior modeled for their benefit. 

Moreover, limited media use can significantly reduce the number of frightening images that children are exposed to indirectly.  For children under 8 years old, Dr. Reilly says it is important to try to keep the conversation as simple as possible.  Do not go into details of the specific disaster but rather focus on the safety of your family and the people closest to you.  Assure young children that everything possible is being done to keep them safe.  “Knowing that adults have a plan if this ever happened here gives kids a sense of stabilization and control,” she says. “It can do a lot to help them feel safer.”

For children ages 8 to 12, Dr. Reilly suggests that parents talk in more detail about the disaster, paying special attention to the emotions this information may stir in them.  Typically, preadolescents are just beginning to understand empathy, so it is likely they are going to have a lot of questions about the people living in the area affected by the disaster.  Furthermore, relief efforts by world governments and organizations like the Red Cross should be explained in detail.  Children this age are also often intrigued by the mechanics of natural disasters, so explaining the science behind their causes can make these occurrences seem less random and frightening.  “Knowing the science behind why these things happen,” Dr. Reilly says, “can be a good way for older kids to feel in control of the situation.”  For adolescents, parents should ask what they know about the earthquake and then fill in missing pieces or correct misinformation.  Anticipate discussions around the question of whether a similar event could happen in the future.  Although adolescents have the ability to discuss events on a more sophisticated level, they are still likely to feel vulnerable and may need emotional support and reassurance about their own safety.

Regardless of a child’s age, parents should suggest ways that he or she can help with relief efforts.  This is an invaluable way of empowering them during a scary time.  Your children can run a clothing drive, raise funds for the Red Cross and write letters of support.  If your family is religious, say a prayer for those affected by the disaster.  The Children’s School will be collecting donations for the Red Cross the week of April 11–15.  The National Association of Independent Schools has compiled a list of resources that provide schools and families with a number of positive ways to respond to the crisis in Japan.  Some ask for donations of food, clothing and money.  Others take a more educational tack, as you will see below:

American Red Cross

Google News Search Feed – Japan Earthquake 

Dynamic Planet Interactive Map 
(Good for an explanation of what is going on geologically in Japan.)

United States Geological Survey – World Earthquakes in the Past 7 Days

United States Geological Survey Earthquake Information – East Coast of Honshu, Japan

Nadja Reilly’s own son was 8 years old during the Haitian earthquake, and he helped to organize an event that sent sleeping bags to the island.  The entire process was a very positive experience for him, which is why Dr. Reilly suggests that parents help their children get involved with relief efforts whenever possible.  “Anything kids can do to help alleviate the suffering caused by disasters is going to help make them feel less hopeless about the event,” she says. “It benefits the kids and people directly affected by the tragedy, so any activity of that nature should be encouraged by parents and schools.”

Finally, we are attaching a terrific resource that covers in great depth the best ways to communicate with children about natural disasters, as well as manage their—and your—feelings when they occur.  It is called What Happened to My World? Helping Children Cope with Natural Disaster and Catastrophe, by Jim Greenman.  This manual has long been a favorite at The Children’s School.  Should you desire another reliable, thoughtful resource, we suggest that you go to the American Academy of Pediatrics website at:<>.

As always, if you have any questions or concerns that you want to share with us, please do not hesitate to call The Children’s School.

Our hearts and prayers go out to the families who have been affected by this tragedy.


The Children's School
118 Scofieldtown Road
Stamford, CT 06903

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