Discussing a tragic event or disaster with children is never an easy task. Parents have to balance their own emotions as well as their children’s while trying to stay as calm as possible.
So what’s the best way to handle this delicate balance? If possible, get as much information as you can before you speak with your kids so you are well informed.
For young children, tell them what happened and who is working on the issue so they can visualize and identify with people they are familiar with, like the police, fire department, electric company and such. If it’s a weather related issue, you can explain why the lights may be out (“a tree branch fell on electrical wires”), or that it’s safer to stay indoors, or if it’s best to leave the area. Provide concrete explanations of what happened and how it will affect them. Let them know what is being done to keep them safe – they may be worried that a disaster will occur again.
When they are a little older you can get into more detail, but try to keep them calm and stay optimistic. They need the reassurance from you that things are being handled.
When the news is reporting on a disaster, no matter what it might be, it can be an overwhelming amount of details for kids to take in. It’s best to limit their intake or watch a little with them, then discuss the situation together as a family. They really don’t need to see the graphic images that are often aired live, instead talk to them and let them ask you questions. Be sure to ask them what they are thinking and how they feel. Some children have a hard time expressing themselves so keep a close eye on them and continue to reassure them that things will be back to normal soon.
There is a delicate balance when dealing with a big disaster: it’s best not to give them false hope or false reassurances. This is the time to comfort them and help them cope with the situation. They look to you to see how they should react and cope, so share some of your feelings and how you are handling them.
Some common reactions to disasters for younger children include:
- Showing forms of dependence (e.g., clinging, refusing to sleep alone, separation anxiety)
- Temper tantrums
- Aggressive behavior
Older children and adolescents may experience:
- Problems at school or with relationships
- Risky behaviors such as alcohol or drug use
How each child reacts will depend on the individual, their age, and the amount of information they have been exposed to. If your child is unable to express themselves or seems passive in the midst of tragic news, be patient and reassuring. You also might want to pull out some paper and crayons; often kids are better able to express themselves through drawing. Then talk to them about their picture and how it makes them feel.
This is a difficult task, no doubt, but remember that your child looks to you and if you are calm and collected, it will help ease their anxiety. If you still see they are having a challenging time coping weeks after the event, or if they are acting out, speak with their doctor.