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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