Help Kids Cope when Disaster Strikes


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Question: The other day, my 6-year-old daughter asked if it is safe to drink water. Eventually she shared that she had heard about the 'bad' water in Japan. I realized why she had been refusing to drink water or juice for days. What can I do to help her, now and in future situations?

Answer: It is safe to assume that the news will continue to report troubling situations. Your daughter's reactions may be more on the surface than those of other children, but she may not be more troubled than are most children who hear worrisome news. Others might keep it all inside. What is a parent to do?

Coping with disasters near and far

When disasters strike close to home, as with the recent tornadoes in North and South Carolina, families and children are more directly impacted and can experience emotional or physical trauma firsthand. Many N.C. residents, even if they were not injured, were without power and may have been temporarily or permanently displaced from their homes. In these cases, caregivers should try to ensure a child's routine retains some sense of normalcy. Follow these tips to help children directly affected by an event:

  • Be sure there is an adult available to continually keep a child comforted.
  • Make sure that the child's surroundings are as familiar as possible. Even if a room is destroyed, it helps to have something familiar to the child.
  • If a child has experienced a major trauma, consult a professional.

Most disasters occur at a distance, without affecting a family's daily life. The tsunami in Japan is an example of a "background" disaster since it is geographically farther away and isn't as overwhelming for most adults here as an event such as 9/11. Parents can help children through disasters with protection, reassurance, discussion and action. Below are some suggestions for parents.

Consider children's ages

Shield young children from scary information, including all radio and TV news. Children ages 7 through 12 benefit from knowing basic information, but may also suffer excessive anxiety if exposed to overly detailed information or images. Teenagers should have full access to information and images, but require protection from media bombardment, which can increase anxiety for teenagers and adults alike.

Talk about it

Many 3-year-olds, and almost all 4-year-olds, will be scared by the following words: bombs, dying, disaster, earthquake, terrorist, tornado, flood, leaving homes, losing everything, unable to find family members, blown apart, killed. Such  words and phrases fill today's airwaves. Since parents can't fully shield young children from hearing these words, assume your child has absorbed scary words in a worried way.

Don't assume a child is not listening. A young child is aware of what's said, even if she might misconstrue it (as in this case with the water). Few children will directly ask about confusing and worrying words.

You could ask a young child, "Were you listening to the lady on the radio? Is there something you would like me to help you understand?" This gives your child room to ask or not ask, without putting ideas in her head. If she asks what the lady said, and you think that she is responding to your question rather than to her reactions, you could say, "Oh, she was talking about a country far away called Libya. Would you like me to tell you about Libya?" You could talk about African weather, animals and other non-scary topics.

Children master emotions, information and images with words, so provide young children with simple and reassuring explanations. Parents can explain an earthquake: "There are places where the ground shakes. We call that an earthquake. When that happens, sometimes buildings fall down. We don't have big earthquakes where we live" (if that is true).

School-age children benefit from more-detailed discussions. A conversation starter might be: "You heard about the earthquake and the problems it caused. Is there anything that you would like me to explain or talk about?"

Show respect and provide reassurance

Respect children's views, even if they differ from yours. This is especially important during times of catastrophe because children bolster their sense of control and security through independent thought. Answer questions only after understanding your child's perspectives. Parents should remain truthful even though the answer may not fully relieve children's anxiety about an event.

Parental love is the single most important source of comfort. There is nothing like a hug to convey that all is well.

Provide perspective

Catastrophes involve unleashed destructive forces and confrontations with the lack of guaranteed safety in the world. Parents can help children understand that adult actions provide reasonable control and safety for themselves, their loved ones and their community. For example, you can tell your child that some of the water in Japan is unsafe now, but the Japanese people aren't drinking the unsafe water, and you and everyone in our country are making sure that no one here drinks any unsafe water.

Take action to empower

Acts of generosity, empathy and charity also enable children to feel empowered by sharing goodness to counteract a tragedy's destructive forces. You and your daughter can decide together how to help others, such as the people in Japan. Perhaps she can contribute a few pennies or draw a picture that you send to the American Red Cross, along with your gift.

The question may be a composite or illustration of parents' questions. To submit a topical question about children's emotional health and development, e-mail editorial@carolinaparent.com with Ask Lucy Daniels in the subject line. The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the health and well-being of children and families.

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