Talking to Kids About Disasters
February 8, 2005 1:52 PM
In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, images of the giant wave wreaking havoc on coastal regions and talk of the overwhelming death toll – some 160,000 and still rising – were in near-constant rotation on television news.
Such coverage can be disorienting and frightening for children, who may not understand the relatively low risk they face from such disasters.
But some experts say that large-scale tragedies like the tsunami or the Sept. 11 attacks needn’t traumatize children, if parents and teachers give the right kind of reassurance.
“Children can sense fear coming from adults,” said Cindy Cervantes, program coordinator for the SF State Jumpstart program, which pairs highly trained SF State students with preschool children for one-on-one tutoring in learning skills.
“A lot of people react (to children’s questions about disasters) by trying to change the subject, trying to get the child to forget, but (kids are) smarter than that," said Cervantes. “If a child is asking about something, then they are ready to talk about it. It’s important to get them to talk about their feelings.”
Every age group requires a different type of response, and every individual child will react to tragedy in a different way, Cervantes said. After Sept. 11, making the complex socio-political motives behind terrorist attacks palpable to a group of fourth graders was a challenge, she also said.
“They were asking, ‘Why would someone do this to us?’” Cervantes said. “And it’s hard to answer that question.
“Some children don’t understand people hating each other.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has created a Web site to help children understand and prepare for large-scale disasters. FEMA for Kids (http://www.fema.gov/kids) offers easy-to-read explanations about earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural phenomena, as well as a section on “national security emergencies,” or terrorist attacks.
Children can play online games and help their family prepare for future events by forming an evacuation plan and creating an emergency supply kit. Parents can also order free educational activity and coloring books from the site. The Department of Homeland Security will soon open a kids’ section at its terrorist attack preparedness site, http://www.ready.gov.
“Children, like parents, have complex fears and anxieties about disasters,” said Barbara Ellis, a public affairs officer with FEMA. “We (feel) children are a very important part of the disaster recovery program.
“The more information people have, the better.”
Parents should avoid being deliberately vague or simply telling kids, “Don’t worry,” according to the National Mental Health Association. Instead, they can engage children with specific questions about their feelings, and be realistic in their reassurances, saying things like, “You’re safe now, and I’ll always try to protect you,” instead of offering hollow guarantees.
Appropriate responses will vary by the child’s age. Younger kids may have trouble comprehending why disasters like the tsunami happen or believe that they are in danger of every far-away incident they see on television.
Adolescents can also have difficulty coping with disaster, according to the mental health group, sometimes acting out or regressing to younger behavior. Though teens may not vocalize their feelings, parents should keep the lines of communication open and honest.
Parents can also talk with older children about scientific and technological advances that help keep them safe, like the tsunami warning system or advanced satellites that track hurricanes, according to FEMA.
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