Talking to Kids About Natural Disasters

Tips and advice to help parents discuss the difficult topic of catastrophes and tragic news around the world.

How Parents Should Approach Sensitive Topics

In light of recent tornadoes and other natural disasters happening in the U.S. and around the world, Parents.com consulted experts from Project Recovery Iowa, a counseling outreach program administered by the Iowa Department of Human Services and funded by The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for tips on discussing catastrophes with kids. Project Recovery Iowa helps adults and children of all ages who are affected by natural disasters; counseling can take place in homes, schools, local businesses, or the park. Karen Hyatt, Emergency Mental Health Specialist and Administrator at Project Recovery Iowa, answered our questions and offered advice on how parents can talk to kids about natural disasters. (Click on the link below for more advice from Amanda Gesme, Children's Manager and licensed mental health counselor.)

In what ways should parents approach the topic of tragic events like natural disasters?

Parents should approach the topic in a calm, patient, and normal manner. Questions and concerns may be tough to address, but keeping communication open is critical and honesty is essential. It is important to provide a safe environment for children to talk. Be sensitive to the reactions of children who are susceptible to experiencing worry, anxiety, shock, and stress -- particularly children who live in areas that have experienced or are experiencing a natural disaster; who have relatives in afflicted areas; who have experienced a personally stressful or traumatic event such as a parental divorce, separation from parents, illness, or death in the family; who have had a negative reaction to war, bombing, and the loss of a parent or friend in a catastrophic event; and who have learning or emotional problems.

Should parents bring up a news topic even if kids aren't aware of or directly affected by it?

Wait for the child's questions or for an opportune moment to bring up the topic. Focus on survivorship, and discuss what has been gained or learned since the disaster. Some of this discussion can be focused around activities such as story writing or artwork. It's helpful to keep a positive focus on the future to help normalize reactions. Be aware of your own reaction -- shock, dismay, anger -- because children are apt to reflect their parents' attitudes. Consider the child's individual personality and temperament. Some children are naturally more prone to being fearful, and news showing graphic images may heighten a child's feelings of anxiety; others, preoccupied with their own lives, will simply not pay much attention to the news. Others may ignore the suffering if they become numb from the repetitive news reports.

What are some guidelines to explain natural disasters? What comfort parents can provide?

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 on TV and therefore 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. Although talking is important, parents shouldn't give more details than necessary. Reassure kids that earthquakes and tsunamis are very rare. With young children, be specific about the ways families, local officials, state and federal government, and organizations (for example, the Red Cross, the United Nations Relief Fund) take precautions to keep everyone safe and provide help. Talk about the scientific advances made to anticipate, avert, and deal with natural disasters.

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Dealing with Kids of Different Age Groups

What online resources should parents refer to or use when talking to their kids?

In addition to FEMA.gov, parents can refer to Bright Horizons (http://www.brighthorizons.com/TalktoChildren/) for free content on helping kids face natural disasters and catastrophes. Bright Futures (http://www.brightfutures.org/tools/index.html) offers tools (in English and Spanish) for emotional and social development. Sesame Workshop (http://www.sesameworkshop.org) created "You Can Ask" to help kids process the September 11 attacks, but the resource works to help kids through all types of catastrophes. All these resources can be downloaded as PDFs.

Story times at local organizations that provide crisis-counseling services can also be a safe environment where kids can express their emotions and parents can learn what to do for their child.

What signs should parents look out for to see if kids are traumatized or unusually upset?

The degree of a child's reaction will vary depending on his or her experiences, and reactions may appear immediately or months later. The following list describes possible reactions for different age groups and the helpful responses to them.

Ages 1 to 5

Behavioral Symptoms
Resumption of bedwetting, thumb-sucking, clinging to parents; fear of the dark; avoidance of sleeping alone; increased crying

Physical Symptoms
Loss of appetite; stomach aches; nausea; sleep problems, nightmares; speech difficulties; tics

Emotional Symptoms
Anxiety; fear; irritability/angry outbursts; sadness; withdrawal

Intervention Options
Give verbal assurance and physical comfort; provide comforting bedtime routines; avoid unnecessary separations; encourage expression regarding losses (deaths, pets, toys); monitor media exposure to disaster trauma; encourage expression through play activities

Ages 6 to 11

Behavioral Symptoms
Decline in school performance; aggressive behavior at home or at school; hyperactive or silly behavior; whining, clinging, acting like a younger child; increased competition with younger siblings for attention

Physical Symptoms
Change in appetite; headaches; stomach aches; sleep disturbances, nightmares

Emotional Symptoms
School avoidance; withdrawal from friends and familiar activities; angry outbursts; obsessive preoccupation with disaster, safety

Intervention Options Give additional attention and consideration; relax expectations of performance at home and at school, temporarily; set gentle but firm limits for acting out behavior; encourage verbal and play expression of thoughts and feelings; listen to the child's repeated retelling of a disaster event; involve the child in preparation of family emergency kit or home drills; rehearse safety measure for future disasters.

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How Kids Can Cope with Catastrophes

Ages 12 to 18

Behavioral Symptoms
Decline in academic performance; rebellion at home or school; decline in previous responsible behavior; agitation or decrease in energy level; apathy; delinquent behavior; social withdrawal

Physical Symptoms
Appetite changes; headaches; gastrointestinal problems; skin eruptions; complaints of vague aches and pains; sleep disorders

Emotional Symptoms
Loss of interest in social activities with peers; sadness or depression; resistance to authority; feelings of inadequacy and helplessness

Intervention Options
Give additional attention and consideration; relax expectations of performance at home and school temporarily; encourage discussion of disaster experiences with peers and significant adults; avoid insisten discussion of feelings with parents; encourage physical activities; rehearse family safety measure for future disasters; encourage resumption of social activities, athletics, clubs, etc.; encourage participation in community rehabilitation and reclamation work.

How can kids cope with grief, death, and the idea that bad things happen?

The physical loss of a person is considered to be the primary loss, but many other aspects of the child's life will change following the death of a loved one. These other changes are considered to be secondary losses -- a sense of security, a sense of faith and purpose, a sense of identity -- and can be thought of as the ripple effects of the death. The process of bereavement has been characterized as a series of tasks to confront and resolve. For children, these tasks include:

Understanding that the person has died and will not return. Understanding means believing the death has occurred and being aware of the permanent ways in which life will be affected.

Working through negative and painful emotions. Unaddressed feelings can lead to physical symptoms and emotional difficulties, and are likely to resurface at a later time. Experiencing painful feelings is an important task in coming to terms with loss.

Adjusting to a life without their loved one. Children will need to adjust to new routines, responsibilities, and roles. For example, a young child might need to accept that Dad doesn't read stories as well as Mom.

Finding an appropriate way to retain memories of the deceased, while also forming new relationships. As time passes, memories of the deceased should become less painful, and the child will be able to reinvest physical and emotional energy into other areas of his life. At the same time, it is important that children form new relationships and develop new support systems such as role models and guides.

There is no timetable for the grieving process or predictable stages for the emotions that each child encounters.

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.

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