Talking to children about natural disasters

A few days ago I woke up to an email from my husband, who is in Japan on business. There was a massive earthquake today, but I’m OK. I hit my head and we were under tables for ten minutes but we’re OK. As I started looking at news sites, the extent of what happened wasn’t clear at first – it was hard to tell, from initial online footage, how much worse it was than some of the earthquakes we have experienced while living there – but then the stories began pouring in.

Stories from Japan range from the poignantly humorous, such as the woman whose husband ate their emergency ration of chocolates, to the utterly sad – friends’ grandparents who had to evacuate their family home; a man who was rescued nine miles out to sea after having watched his wife disappear before his eyes; moving cars, trains, an entire village washed away.  Tokyo, a city of commuters heavily reliant on public transportation, was filled with streams of people walking miles and miles home, or sleeping where they could, because the trains had stopped. Children stayed overnight at school because their parents weren’t able to return to get them.  There are stories of blackouts and grocery stores wiped clean of supplies; there are also stories of life continuing on, such as the email from our children’s beloved kindergarten, telling us that each and every child and teacher was safe and that graduation ceremonies would continue on this week,  or the fragmented phone conversations with friends over there, all of whom were, thankfully, accounted for and for whom daily life continues on as usual, though with more stress and uncertainty and general jumpiness.

It’s the stories of schoolkids in Japan that have hit home for our children, even more than the thought of their father stranded over there. (After all, they can see him with their own eyes via webcam). For our children, who lived in Japan for most of their lives, the thought of their school friends and what they and so many children went through has made it all feel awfully real. They could perfectly imagine, from the frequent earthquake and emergency evacuation drills they’d had (and how grateful I am now for what I used to consider overpreparedness), how the teachers would have instructed all the kids to crouch under their desks with their earthquake helmets on, and that they would have waited in quiet lines for parents to come fetch them and sign them out, however long it might take for them to reach them.  They knew what emergency supplies looked like because everyone in Japan seemed to keep a box at home with bottled water, freeze-dried food, helmets, batteries and flashlights, blankets, and even toilet bags. We all are reminded of the necessity of having a communication or emergency plan in place, as friends say it was an unexpected difficulty when family members were scattered in different places and cell phone lines were down. The tsunami was less easy to comprehend, far more terrifying and, as it turns out, impossible to prepare for.

How does one talk to kids about such huge natural disasters, ghastly and incomprehensible even for adults?  We don’t have TV at home, but the snippets and bits we have seen online have stuck in our heads. Our older ones have more concrete, practical questions. Our four year old fears her little friends have died, worries about the babies, and cried at bedtime because she thought, through some mysterious preschooler illogic, that her little sister would die too. She thought her friends Emi-chan, Hina-chan, Kokoro-chan, and others were washed away. They weren’t – but countless others were, and this breaks our hearts. How do we take in the scope of such a disaster while balancing it out against the media deluge?

Louise George Kittaka, a freelance writer and editor living in Tokyo, talks about coping with the disaster while parenting children, below.

My ten year old, a fourth grader, has been clingy and tearful and has woken up the last three nights with bad dreams.

She sees the images coming from the disaster zones in Sendai and fears that the same thing will happen to her. It helped that I took her out shopping with me today, just around our immediate neighborhood on our bikes, and showed her that our little corner of Tokyo still ticks along as normal, aside from no gas at the gas stand on our corner and no toilet paper or batteries in stores. I asked what they told her at school about it and the teacher kept it in fairly general terms. Like me, he apparently told them to count themselves lucky and that the people in Tohoku are having a much harder time. They concentrated more on measures to save energy and water and ways kids could help at home. I like that idea, letting them know they can take a practical approach and feel involved, without freaking them out with disaster statistics.

My husband works in Tochigi for his job and drove twelve hours through the night to come back on Saturday. It was much worse for them there, and still is. Some of the stories he is hearing are also upsetting for my youngest. I think all the coverage on TV hasn’t helped, so I told my husband to let the girls watch Disney Channel and American Idol yesterday. He didn’t think that was right, but our being fearful and miserable 24-7 won’t help those up north! We all needed a break, me as well as my girls.


My thirteen year old, in seventh grade at a private school, commutes an hour by train. The kids are off for the next three days, as the school couldn’t guarantee them getting there and safely back with the planned power outages and trains not running. She is old enough to be of real help, and indeed has been. She took toilet paper to a friend who was running out, she made ice packs for the food in case of power outages, and she organized candles and cleverly made use of half-melted ones. We have a good friend in Mito, Ibaragi, with two kids around the same age. For three days, they had no water and  no power, little food. The dad was unable to get back to the rest of them, and they have four cats and three dogs as well! Finally I talked to her this morning and hearing some of the measures they took made it more real for my girls, like no water for the toilet; the twelve year old son found a stream and brought back several buckets of water! It is more real when it happens to someone you know.


My oldest is an eleventh grader currently staying in New Zealand at my parents’ home and attending high school there. He was very worried at the images coming out of Japan and being shown on the media over there, as they often don’t say where the video is coming from. Once he read my emails and later Skyped with us, he was able to get a better picture of the whole disaster. However, his relief that his family and friends in Tokyo are relatively safe and comfortable right now is tempered with sadness for the people of the Tohoku area.


How have you talked to your children about this or other disasters?

Christine is a mother of four, crafter, journalist, and author. She wrote The Diaper-Free Baby (HarperCollins, 2007), a book about elimination communication, and a book and craft kit, Origami Suncatchers (Sterling, 2011). She’s now writing a book about global parenting practices to be published by Avery, a Penguin Books imprint, in 2013. Visit her at her blog.

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