Talking to Kids About World Natural Disasters

by Anita Gurian, PhD

little girl watching something serious on TV

In the aftermath of the disaster in Japan, television and other media are depicting graphic scenes of devastation. Children are being exposed to stories and photos of destroyed homes, dislocated families, rising death tolls and fears of nuclear catastrophe.

Parents wonder if, when, and how to explain these events to their children. Kids' questions and concerns are likely to be tough to answer, but as with all important discussions, keeping communication lines open is critical and honesty is essential. Some concerns don't get settled quickly, and more than one talk may be necessary as events unfold.

Be sensitive to the reactions of children who may be particularly susceptible to experiencing worry, anxiety, shock and stress. These include children who:

  • Live in areas that have previously experienced or may experience a natural disaster, such a hurricane, flood, volcanic eruption, forest fire, etc. or have relatives in the afflicted areas.
  • Have previously experienced a personal stressful or traumatic event such as a parental divorce, separation from parents, illness or death in the family.
  • Have had a previous negative reaction to a man-made disaster such as a war, bombing, loss of a parent or friend in a catastrophic event.
  • Have a learning or emotional problem.

Talk is important but don't give more details than necessary. Reassure children that earthquakes and tsunamis are very rare, and that every effort is being made to ensure their safety. With young children in particular, be specific about the ways in which their families, local officials and state and federal government take precautions to keep everyone safe.

  • Wait for the child's questions or for an opportune moment to bring up the topic. Be aware of your own reactions—shock, dismay, anger—since children are apt to reflect the attitudes of their parents.
  • Consider the child's individual personality style and temperament. Some children are naturally more prone to be fearful. News showing graphic instances of the catastrophe may heighten a child's feelings of anxiety. Some children, preoccupied with their own lives, will simply not pay much attention to the news. At the other extreme, some children ignore the suffering depicted. They can get overloaded and become numb due to the repetitive nature of the reports. Exposure to other forms of violence, such as video games, makes it more difficult to understand the reality of the news events.
  • Adjust your response to the age of the child. Children personalize the news and interpret events in relation to their own lives. Young children may confuse facts with their fantasies and fears. They may not realize that the same images are shown many times and may think the disasters are happening over and over again. School-age children may equate scenes from a scary movie with news footage and magnify the personal effect of news events. Focus on the rescue efforts and the bravery of the Japanese people. Teens consider issues of ethics and may feel a need to take action, such as becoming involved with a charitable aid organization.

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

Can we just ignore the news and hope the children don't see scary images?
Although it's tempting to protect children from unpleasant realities, ignoring the news, particularly for school-age children, is probably not an option. They are likely to see the images in the media or hear about them from others. 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 disaster. Television viewing for young children should be limited. Parents should watch with their children in order to deal with their reactions and to be available to share their reactions and correct misinformation. Assure them that chances of a similar disaster occurring in their area are remote.

How can we help children deal with their worry and shock?
Continue with established routines. When appropriate, talk about things children might do, such as investigating preventive measures in place in their community, or participating in community relief organizations. Older children may benefit from researching facts about earthquakes, tsunamis and other disasters.

How can we help children feel safe?
For children who want more information and need reassurance, parents can talk about the scientific advances made to anticipate, avert and deal with natural disasters. The role of 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 other natural disasters, the way children's lives can be affected, and ways in which they can express their concern and support for victims of disaster.