Every parent has the experience of trying to figure out how to interpret and respond to disasters that occur during their children’s lives. Whether they are acts of war, terrorism or nature, children may view images on television or learn about tragedies from friends, media or other sources, all of which can be very disturbing for adults and children alike.
Disasters like the one in Haiti may arouse interest, fear, confusion, stress--and perhaps even symptoms like sleeplessness, anxiety and deep sadness. On the other hand, disasters are part of life, and parents can help their children cope with their feelings about difficult realities. They can also learn about empathy and charitable giving.
Here are some tips for communicating with your children:
1. Age and temperament should determine how you talk to your children about disasters. Young children or anxious children of any age should have minimal exposure to TV or media with graphic images.
2. Talk about the disaster and share your values about helping others in times of need. Explore feelings that may surface; the disaster may “trigger” other worries, concerns or past experiences.
3. Make sure you don’t “over-talk.” Gauge the level of the information you provide to your child’s needs and comprehension capacity, not to your enthusiasm for sharing and teaching.
4. Prioritize making your child feel safe and secure. In your reassurance, make sure to that you don’t use dismissive, minimizing language (e.g. “Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll be fine.”) Instead, validate feelings of sadness and grief (e.g. “You feel awful that these children have lost their moms and dads. I do too.”) and encourage coping responses (e.g. “Let’s go look on the Net for organizations that we want to give to.”)
5. Role model your own feelings and coping approaches. Maybe you’ll even haul your teenager along to your neighborhood school where people are packing first aid supplies for the Red Cross.
6. Emphasize the importance of taking action, whether the disaster is near or far. People who become activated around crises always cope better than those who surrender to hopelessness, helplessness and passive vulnerability.
The most common mistake parents make (especially with younger children) is leaving the TV on with news that exposes them to repeated images which can be traumatic. Even though parents may explain to kids that they themselves are not in imminent danger, these images are processed in the emotional centers of our brain and can incite anxiety responses or “virtual” trauma reactions.
Good communication skills allow parents to help their children learn about important realities in the world. The key is the “dose”, so that parents don’t over or under-attend to their children’s needs in dealing with these events. Curious children and teens may even gain an understanding for how the management of natural disasters is affected by culture, poverty, social inequality and politics. Parents can have intimate moments with their children when they are the ones to help their children cope with raw realities in the world. Don’t miss the opportunity.
Dr. Laura Kastner is the author of Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Raising Tweens and Teens, published by ParentMap.