Tips for Talking to Kids About Natural Disasters
Natural disasters are making the news again, the most recent being an endless string of tornadoes that struck mostly midwestern and southern states in the U.S., including Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, Indiana, and Missouri. Increasing TV updates and news photos focusing on the death toll and destruction brings to mind other disturbing images of the Japan tsunami from March.
Parents.com consulted experts from Project Recovery Iowa, a Department of Human Services program funded by FEMA and administered by the state of Iowa. Project Recovery Iowa offers mental health counseling for those affected by natural disasters. The program was started in 2008 to assist people coping with the after effects of severe storms and flooding in Iowa. Amanda Gesme, Children’s Manager at Project Recovery Iowa and licensed mental health counselor, shared advice on how parents can talk to kids about natural disasters.
First, parents should approach the topic of tragic events in a calm, patient, and truthful manner. If your children are aware of current events, it’s ok to ask them first to start a discussion and answer questions, even ones that are repeated over and over. Kids are looking for reassurance when processing information, so be open to talking. Even if you don’t have all the answers, says Gesme, validate what your child tells you. However, make sure to limit exposure to media or any unnecessary details. “Children are smart — even if parents are careful and talk in whispers or behind closed doors, they know that ‘something’ is going on,” explains Gesme. Even children as young as 2 years old are aware when something important is happening.
Second, parents should explain that even though natural disasters happen, they don’t happen often. Resources to guide parents include activity books by Marge Heegaard to help children process feelings and “A Terrible Thing That Happened” by Margaret M. Holmes, a picture book that deals with trauma. Signs that kids might be traumatized include regressive behaviors (e.g. thumb sucking, bedwetting) that begin to affect their daily life, extended periods of withdrawal, and disinterest in toys and friends. Parents can also see if there are government-funded resources in the local area, especially ones from FEMA.
Third, parents can get kids involved with helping those affected by natural disasters. Depending on their age, kids can help with cleanup, make “thinking of you” cards, and/or put together Disaster Preparedness Kits that include bandaids, snacks, games, clean socks, bottled water, toilet paper, flashlights, hand sanitizers, etc. Or parents can simply ask their kids for ideas on how to help and then carry out suggested solutions.
Next week, we’ll bring you more ways parents can talk to kids about natural disasters, provided by Karen Hyatt, Emergency Mental Health Specialist and Administrator at Project Recovery Iowa.
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