In today’s world, children often hear about the disasters that befall people in some part of our country or a foreign land.  Sometimes children react in obvious ways, and sometimes they keep their worries inside, perhaps even private. What is a parent to do?

Coping with disasters near and far

When disasters strike close to home, such as a hurricane or tornado, families and children are more directly impacted and can experience emotional or physical trauma firsthand. In these cases, caregivers should try to ensure a child's routine retains some sense of normalcy. Follow these tips to help children directly affected by an event:

* Be sure there is an adult available to continually keep a child comforted.

* Make sure that the child's surroundings are as familiar as possible. Even if a room is destroyed, it helps to have something familiar to the child.

* If a child has directly experienced a major trauma, consult a professional.

Most disasters occur at a distance, without affecting a family's daily life. The tsunami in Japan is an example of a "background" disaster since it is geographically farther away and isn't as overwhelming for most adults here as an event such as 9/11. Parents can help children through such disasters with protection, reassurance, discussion and action. Below are some suggestions for parents.

Consider children's ages

Shield young children from scary information, including all radio and TV news. Children ages 7 through 12 benefit from knowing basic information, but may also suffer excessive anxiety if exposed to overly detailed information or images. Teenagers should have full access to information and images, but require protection from media bombardment, which can increase anxiety for teenagers and adults alike.

Talk about it

Many 3-year-olds, and almost all 4-year-olds, will be scared by the following words: bombs, dying, disaster, earthquake, terrorist, tornado, flood, leaving homes, losing everything, unable to find family members, blown apart, killed. Such words and phrases, and similar ones, fill today's airwaves. Since parents can't fully shield young children from hearing these words, parents should assume that their child has absorbed scary words in a worried way.

Parents shouldn’t assume a child is not listening. A young child is aware of what's said, even if she or he might misconstrue it.  Few children will directly ask about confusing and worrying words.

Parents could ask a young child, "Were you listening to the lady on the radio? Is there something you would like me to help you understand?" This gives a child room to ask or not ask, without putting ideas in his or her head. If the child asks what the lady said, and a parent think that their child is responding to their question rather than to his or her reactions, they could say, "Oh, she was talking about a country far away called Libya. Would you like me to tell you about Libya?" Parents could talk about African weather, animals and other non-scary topics.

Children master emotions, information and images with words, so parents should provide young children with simple and reassuring explanations. Parents can explain an earthquake: "There are places where the ground shakes. We call that an earthquake. When that happens, sometimes buildings fall down. We don't have big earthquakes where we live" (if that is true).

School-age children benefit from more-detailed discussions. A conversation starter might be: "You heard about the earthquake and the problems it caused. Is there anything that you would like me to explain or talk about?"

Show respect and provide reassurance

Parents should respect children's views, even if they differ from their own. This is especially important during times of catastrophe because children bolster their sense of control and security through independent thought. Parents should answer questions only after understanding their child's perspectives. Parents should remain truthful even though the answer may not fully relieve children's anxiety about an event.

Parental love is the single most important source of comfort. There is nothing like a hug to convey that all is well.

Provide perspective

Catastrophes involve unleashed destructive forces and confrontations with the lack of guaranteed safety in the world. Parents can help children understand that adult actions provide reasonable control and safety for themselves, their loved ones and their community.

Take action to empower

Acts of generosity, empathy and charity also enable children to feel empowered by sharing goodness to counteract a tragedy's destructive forces. Parents can decide along with their children how best to help others, such as by contributing a few pennies or drawing a picture to send to the American Red Cross, along with a gift.

Children notice, think and react.  When parents recognize this, scary events can provide an opportunity to help children grow in emotional capacity to deal with an uncertain world.

To download a PDF of this article, click here