How to Talk to Children about Natural Disasters

In the recent news cycles, there’s been a great deal of natural disasters. In the recent news cycles, there’s been a great deal of natural disasters. Whether it’s tropical storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, or wild fires, these types of tragedies may be at the forefront of your son or daughter’s mind.

So how should we talk to our children about natural disasters? Since every child is different, a parent’s approach will likely vary. Here are four great resources that offer advice on how to address such confusing events with children.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

David Fassler, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Vermont.  He created a succinctly-written pdf document with 15 tips on speaking with children regarding natural disasters and their aftermath.

His guide covers a wide range of approaches, which is ideal for parents whose children may respond to disasters in different ways. For example, while some children may wish to discuss the events, others may express their feelings and emotions better through drawing or writing. Dr. Fassler also shares that such disasters can be more intense for children who have experienced unrelated loss, and extra support may be necessary.

Girl Scouts

This guide, posted by the Girl Scouts of the United States of America, shares advice from Andrea Bastiani Archibald, a developmental psychologist. It discusses the importance of acknowledging a child’s confusion and fear of such events, and advises parents to focus on responding in an age-appropriate manner.  The article ends by recommending action in some way; assisting those affected by a natural disaster offers families an opportunity to put empathy into action.

Related: Emergency Preparedness Plan: Does Your Family Have One?

Psychology Today

This informative article, written by Eileen Kennedy-More Ph.D., advises parents on how to approach a variety of disasters, including natural ones. Her advice regarding disaster unfolds in six major steps:

  • Start wherever your child is.
  • Be careful what you let your child see.
  • Take care of yourself.
  • Keep things stable and predictable at home.
  • Find child-size ways to take action.
  • Talk about values.

Her relevant article provides examples at each stage to help parents navigate this difficult discussion.

Related: Beyond Red Ridinghood:  Protecting Children from Our Pain About the World

American Academy of Pediatrics is a site run by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Recognizing that a child’s mental health is as important as physical health, the organization has compiled a number of resources for parents covering a wide range of mental health topics, including the resource, “Talking to Children about Disasters”.  One of the main points in this article focuses on how our children better cope with disasters  “…when they feel they understand what is happening and what they can do to help protect themselves, family, and friends.”

Providing appropriate information is key; the organization advises sharing concrete information with children. In addition, asking children what questions they have greatly benefits their ability to process the event.  However, experts recommend limiting media coverage of disasters; if children are old enough to watch coverage, parents may want to record to preview news stories first.  In addition to  providing steps for parents, this resource lists additional links parents may find helpful.

Whether children see media coverage about the disaster or hear about it on the radio or at the lunch table, taking the time to talk with them exists as a vital aspect of their ability to process what’s happening in the world around them. While each expert resource above offers slightly different advice and approaches, all of the experts stress the importance of addressing the issue as well as providing opportunities for action.

Many children experience fear and a sense of helplessness in the face of natural disasters; creating or finding ways to assist can greatly help children, whether it’s sending cards of support or dropping off donations to the victims of natural disasters.

Perhaps Mr. Rogers’s mother helped her son understand disasters the best. Mr. Rogers once recalled what his mother told him when he questioned her about a disaster he watched.

He shared that, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”  While the discussion around natural disaster will be more complicated, Mrs. Rogers’s positive outlook on finding the helpers is a good place to start.

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