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Disaster Through the Eyes of a Child

How do we discuss traumatic events with our children?

After a great coffee on Monday with a group of local moms, I was all set to discuss homework this week.   However, in light of the recent events in Japan, it all seems inconsequential. 

A couple of weeks ago, we shared our thoughts and insight on grieving and loss - particularly how to help our children through the inevitable finality of death.    It was very helpful to hear so many perspectives.   This week, many of us are trying to figure out how to interpret the news from Japan to our very young children while parents of older children are faced with a lesson from within a tragedy.    

We welcome your thoughts on how to talk about newsworthy tragedy with our children.   They are surrounded by the information on the news, in school and on the Internet (many home pages load with images of the devastation overseas).   

  • How much information do we share with the little ones without scaring them?  My daughter asked me at breakfast yesterday morning as the earthquake hit Tokyo whether or not our house was going to break apart. 
  • Is it better to tell the truth or to "gloss over" some facts?
  • What are signs that your child may be internalizing the news? 
  • How do we help our older children appreciate their good fortune when faced with tragedy in others’ lives?  At what age can they grasp this concept?
  • What can we do in our community to engage our children in international affairs - not just in times of crisis but on a daily basis?
Ayo Hart March 17, 2011 at 02:50 AM
Teresa, it is great to hear that even as young as 10 children can appreciate the need to get involved not just in their own community but internationally. A good friend of mine led a successful effort to help rebuild a village in Sri Lanka after the Aceh tsuami, and I know his children were definitely aware of what was going on in their house to prepare for the trips overseas. Last year, I took my girls to a local supermarket to buy groceries for the Children's Hope Chest food drive, and I was delighted to see so many young children pushing shopping carts, loading the trucks and pitching in for the day. I think we sometimes underestimate our children's capacity to understand and want to be involved in helping others. Perhaps this is one way to distract the attention from the disaster, fear and trauma and redirect the children to trying to come up with possible ways to help. If not money, maybe just a new pen pal?
teresa saputo crerend March 17, 2011 at 01:56 PM
Yes, I have found that talking about how we can help redirects their thoughts. I also think that by talking about these realities in general it's much harder for the kids to internalize their fears. Again, with my ten year old the challenge has become: "how do I explain that there is limits to how many organizations, people etc. we can actually help at one time" as she now is pretty sensitive to what she hears. I explain that we do what we can within reason but another way of helping is just continuing to be a good person who has compassion and empathy and looks out for others. That alone could make the world a better place. I think she's starting to get that.
Cynthia Salas March 17, 2011 at 09:37 PM
Thanks Ayo for the invite to participate, this is great! I could have definitely use this type of forum when my daughter was little. I don't think there is a specific formula on how information is too much. I say, it's depending on the child's age and level of maturity. I would be careful when glossing over and/or minimizing certain events, as smaller children (and some older one's too) do not possess the cognitive ability to express their feelings, and are definitely internalizing all their environmental factors. I would keeping it factual and as simple as possible. Most importantly expressing appropriate feelings related the event is key. If something is creating scary and/or sad feelings in a child, it must be acknowledged as normal feelings. I believe if I minimize the scary event, then the child will begin to question his or her own feelings, which will consequently create confusion in the child; not to mention a level of desensitization. As a single parent, I made the mistake of trying to shield my daughter from so much negativity....of course, motivated by love for my child. In hindsight, through own personal and professional experience, I've concluded that raising a child is THE most challening job and nothing compares to it. There is no one right answer, we can only educate ourselves and do the best we can!
Amy Baker March 18, 2011 at 02:12 PM
My two boys, ages 10 and 7, were very interested in the tragic events in Japan not only because they have spent time in Toyko, but their godfather, Richard, lives there. We were VERY scared for Richard, but his Facebook updates reassured us probably more than the news coverage. In natural disaster events such as these, I do allow the boys to watch the news with me, though I'm ready to hit the off button if need be. And I explain as best as possible how we are safe, and what we would do if faced with such disaster, i.e., get to high ground in the case of a tsunami or flooding. We travel quite a bit with our children, and they have seen some sad things around the world, including children their ages begging on the street. The boys always want to do know what we as a family can do to help. In the case of the beggars, they wanted to give the children money or food. I think they do realize how lucky we, as a community, are. However, in cases such as human violence against human, I'm not comfortable allowing my children to watch, listen or read news coverage of the events, though I will talk to them about the event if I deem it necessary. I was extremely surprised and discouraged by the intimate details of a violent local tragedy which their friends told them during camp last summer, some of it not even accurate. Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but I worry that this could really bring fear and stress into the kids lives before they can really handle it.
Ayo Hart March 19, 2011 at 09:20 PM
Cynthia, thank you VERY much for joining our discussion! I agree with you wholeheartedly that parenting is indeed THE most challenging job - perhaps because of the high level of stress we parents put on ourselves to do it not just correctly but perfectly. I am delighted that we have this forum to share our ideas, experiences and opinions. It is always nice to hear what has and has not worked for others, and is always encouraging to have a professional as yourself remind us that it is okay to share the details of these recent disasters. I never thought of the fact that minimizing the news might cause a child to question her own feelings. Amy, I am relived to hear that your dear friend Richard is okay. My cousin has her entire family on her father's side in Japan. I think that, when possible, travel is one of the best ways to open our children's eyes to the world around them. It always amazes me how something as simple as a trip to the city gets my children to realize that not all kids are heading home to a big backyard or a safe place with food and shelter. It is a VERY good point you mention though about the distinction between natural disaster and human violence. I know friends who have still not been able to discuss the tragic events of 9/11 with their children, and this morning my daughters were met with the news of the bombings in Libya. I must say it is all a bit overwhelming as a mother.

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