Talking to Kids About Disasters

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Television and other media, responding quickly to report disasters in all parts of the world, depict graphic scenes of adults and children in frightening situations. A tsunami in Indonesia, a plane crash in California, or a hurricane in Cuba can seem close to home when details are seen on television.

Parents wonder when, if, and how to explain these events realistically to their children without scaring them. As with all important discussions keeping communication lines open is important and honesty is essential. More than one talk may be necessary as events unfold.

Keep in mind:

  • Children reflect the attitudes of their parents, so be aware of your own reactions.

  • Reassure children our government has many safety measures in place to prevent accidents from happening. Remind them, for example, that every time they board a plane, the safety procedures are explained.

  • Help children understand the real statistical probability of a disaster and to recognize that awful events are very unlikely to happen to them or to members of their family. Point out, for example, in the case of a plane crash: "Millions of people fly safely on airplanes everyday and they all land safely. Once in a great while a plane crashes and some people may get hurt or even killed. But seeing it on the news doesn't mean it happens often or that it will happen to us." Don’t give false reassurances, such as "this can never happen to you."

  • Adjust your response to the age of the child. Children personalize the news and interpret events in relation to their own lives. Young children, who may confuse facts with their fears and fantasies, don’t need to know all the details. As news programs repeat the same images many times, a young child may think the disaster is happening over and over again. School-age children may equate scenes from a scary movie with what they see in the news footage and magnify the personal effect of news events. Watching, reading and examining the news together is the best way to gauge a child’s reaction and to help him/her deal with the information. By discussing what they see together, parents learn how the child processed the information. Emphasize the positive stories about people who helped to rescue others, and the fact that most people are resilient and recover from the effects of disasters.

  • Some children, preoccupied with their own lives, will simply not pay much attention to the news. But other children may be particularly susceptible to experiencing worry, anxiety or stress. Children who have recently experienced a personal stressful event or who have emotional problems are more vulnerable. Consider the child’s individual personality style and temperament; some are naturally more prone to be fearful.

Following are common questions reflecting parents' concerns and some possible answers:

Can’t we just ignore the news and hope the children don’t see scary pictures?

Although it’s tempting to try and protect children from unpleasant realities, ignoring the news, particularly for school-age children, is not an option. They are likely to hear about the disaster from other children and the information may be magnified or distorted. Letting kids keep scared feelings to themselves can be more damaging than frank discussion.

Should I let my children watch television?

Research has shown that watching media coverage, especially repeated viewing, can create stress for children even when they are not directly exposed to the disaster. Parents should watch with their children in order to deal with their reactions and be available to share their reactions and correct misinformation. Assure them that the chances of a similar disaster occurring in their area are very remote.

How can we help children feel safe?

For children and teens who want more information, parents can talk about the scientific advances made to anticipate, avert and deal with disasters. World cooperation through agencies such as the Red Cross, the United Nations Relief Fund and others can be emphasized. Older children may wish to discuss ways in which they can express their concern and support for victims of a disaster.

Date Published: January 16, 2009