How To Talk To Kids About Natural Disasters

This morning, Mo and I were watching the news coverage of the 8.8 earthquake that shocked Japan.

Then he got really interested when the tsunami video started rolling. We were talking about where Japan and  Hawaii are located, and all of sudden the news anchor says a tsunami advisory is in effect for Southern California.

Mo freezes, his eyes get really big, and I already know what he’s about to ask:

ARE WE GONNA DIE MOM?

This is one of those moments you aren’t prepared for as a parent. How do you talk to your kids about a natural disaster?

Dr. Paul Coleman, author of How to Say It to Your Child When Bad Things Happen, offers these suggestions:

  • Wait until they’re older. Until around age 7, Dr. Coleman suggests only addressing the tough stuff if kids bring it up first. “They might see it on TV or hear about it at school (or heaven forbid even witness it), and then you have to deal with it. But younger children might not be able to handle it well,” says Dr. Coleman.
  • Keep it black and white. Yes, the world can be a cruel place, but little kids, well, can’t handle the truth.”Younger kids need to be reassured that this isn’t happening to them and won’t happen to them,” says Dr. Coleman. Parents may feel like they’re lying, since no one can ever be 100% sure of what the future holds, but probability estimates are not something small kids can grasp, and won’t comfort them.
  • Ask questions. Don’t assume you know how they feel. Instead, get at their understanding of what happened. “They might be afraid — or just curious. You have to ascertain that by asking things like ‘What did you hear? What do you think?'” says Dr. Coleman. “If they are scared, ask what they’re afraid of – don’t assume you know. They could be using twisted logic, like they see a building collapse on TV and think it’s Mommy’s office building. Correct any misconceptions, and then offer assurance.”
  • Don’t label feelings as wrong. Let them know that their feelings make sense, and that it’s ok to feel whatever they’re feeling. Never make them feel bad about being scared.
  • Use it as a teaching moment. Talking about bad things can lead to discussions about how to help others, and gives parents an opportunity to model compassion. Talk about donating to a relief organization, or make the message even more personal. “You can say, ‘It makes me think of Mrs. Smith in a wheelchair down the road – maybe we should make her a pot roast,'” says Dr. Coleman.

I assured my son that he is safe and since we live in Los Angeles, we reviewed earthquake safety:

  • If you are indoors, stay there. Quickly move to a safe location in the room such as under a strong desk, a strong table, or along an interior wall. The goal is to protect yourself from falling objects and be located near the structural strong points of the room. Avoid taking cover near windows, large mirrors, hanging objects, heavy furniture, heavy appliances or fireplaces.
  • If you are cooking, turn off the stove and take cover.
  • If you are outdoors, move to an open area where falling objects are unlikely to strike you. Move away from buildings, powerlines and trees.
  • If you are driving, slow down smoothly and stop on the side of the road. Avoid stopping on or under bridges and overpasses, or under power lines, trees and large signs. Stay in your car.

Overall, I think he was just looking for assurance that he is safe and will be ok, as well as all the people in Japan and Hawaii directly affected by the natural disater.

I am sending many positive thoughts and prayers to all the victims for a speedy and resilient recovery.

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