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Discussing Disasters, Wars With Kids Takes Tact

Consider your child's age, maturity level when answering questions about images they see on television.

A devastated Japan. War-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. Conflict in Libya.

The chaos across the globe is often front and center in our living rooms by way of television reports. They're not easy images for adults to process, but, for a child, they can be downright frightening.

Newsworthy topics are inevitable

Sarah Meteer, a New Baltimore mom of two and therapist, said that even without watching the news around children, they are still exposed to grown-up topics in other places. She said that kids will worry about such events, but there are things parents can do help.

"Children today see more things going on in the world than we did as kids. I've seen a lot more anxiety recently than ever before. Parents need to validate their child's feelings," Meteer said.

Parents need to recognize that children's view of the world is self-centered by nature and images of houses washing away or riots in the street can make them feel vulnerable.

Yet, they deserve an "honest, direct answer," she said.

Answers should be age-appropriate

Lisa Hess, a St. Clair Shores-based children’s therapist, said parents need to remember to keep conversations with their children at an appropriate-age level.

“It’s important to stay away from euphemisms as children take things very literally,” Hess said. Some of those include saying the dead  "passed on," "are sleeping" or any phrase that indicates they will come back to life.

Hess also said parents should avoid making promises that they can’t keep. For example, a parent can’t promise that a catastrophe won't strike here or that they are always going to be able to prevent harm. Instead, Hess recommends parents tell children they will always do their best to help keep them safe.

Discussing ways to instill stability

A natural disaster, war or other high-profile event can threaten the child’s sense of security, Hess said, adding that it's good to ask children what would make them feel better about the topic. Meteer said talking about it and developing a precautionary plan for disasters, such as tornadoes in Michigan, can help lessen anxiety.

Hess said parents should never indicate to a child that people are bad or evil and that’s why the event happened to them. Children will take that literally and will think if they are not acting appropriately, something bad will happen to them. She also said that if child are having a hard time understanding it from a religious perspective, it’s important to seek out the advice of spiritual leaders.

“Always watch the news with your kids,” Hess said. She added that parents should give their children the opportunity to talk about what they see. “Some kids will come right out with the questions and other kids are mulling it over in their heads and don’t know what to ask just yet.”

When it comes to older children and teens, Hess said parents can approach it differently. Most of them understand what is going on, but might need to talk about it. One suggestion Hess provides is to ask the kids their opinion. If they have questions, she said they can look for answers together. 

“For more parents, it’s hard to say ‘I don’t know,’ but it is okay to say that,” said Hess.

Finding answers when you don't have them

Meteer said research is one of the best ways to explore disasters and war. There are many online resources for parents looking for ways to talk to their children about these tough topics, such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The blog Teachmama.com provides an example of one mother’s research about explaining the disaster to her children in the post “Talking to kids about the tsunami in Japan.”  

The Children’s Hospital in Colorado also has talking points in “Tips for Parents: Talking to Kids About Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami.” There are also many websites devoted to how to talk to students about the subject in the classroom. Parents might find those helpful as well. The National Science Teachers Association offers “Teaching resources for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.”

But there's more resources available when needed.

“If the child is having persistent worries or having trouble sleeping, maybe it’s time to get your child some professional help,” Hess said.

Christina Barrett April 02, 2011 at 01:29 PM
Great topic! We always seem to walk a fine line between explaining a disaster (such as the earthquake in Japan) to our child in a way to help him understand the devastation, and the need for us to help them, without scaring the heck out of them and causing nightmares!

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