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Wondering how to talk with your child about the tragedy in Japan?  The situation is so disturbing to us as adults that our children are likely to pick up on our upset. It helps to think about how to approach the conversation, before just flooding kids with our own raw emotions.  Start from the premise that your goal is to help your kids integrate the news and feel safe. 

1. Don't leave your TV on.  Knowing there's been an earthquake is one thing.  Seeing powerful moving images is another.  Your children don't need those horrific images replaying in their minds.  Even babies and toddlers who don't understand the news coverage are often upset by disturbing images of devastated buildings and crying people.

2. Remember that your child will pick up on your emotions. If you're upset by what you've just read in the paper, try to calm yourself before interacting with your child, and don't try to talk with your children about the events at that moment. Find a way to process your emotions first.  How? 

  • Talk (privately) to another adult. 
  • Breathe deeply. 
  • Shake tension out of your hands.
  • Tap your acupuncture points to relieve emotional pressure and calm yourself (this is called EFT, there are instructions available here)

3. Be age-appropriate.   Babies and Toddlers will not need to know about a disaster at all.  And there is no need to raise the issue with your preschooler unless they have been exposed to it.  However, many preschool and school-age children will hear about the disaster from someone else and will need your help to process it.

Start by simply asking, to find out what they have heard.  "Did you hear what happened in Japan? What did you hear?"  Listen to their answers before jumping in to explain.  Repeat to be sure you've understood.

"Your teacher told you the ground shook and buildings fell down.  What else did she say?"
"Your friend told you lots of people died and children couldn't find their parents.  What else did he say?
"

4. Explain simply, in terms your child can understand.  Tailor your explanation to your child's developmental understanding.  With all ages, let your child talk as much as he or she will.  Answer questions truthfully, but with as limited information as possible.  There is no reason to give your child details she isn't asking you for.  As much as possible keep your own upset from coloring your presentation of the facts. 

Be aware that your child will need your reassurance that although we are all connected, and we feel for the people of Japan, your family is safe.  Unless you live near a fault line or the ocean, stress that something like this could never happen to them.  If you live near a fault line, stress that earthquakes are very rare.  Add that it's the job of grown-ups to keep kids safe, and that you and the other adults in your child's life will always work very hard to keep your child safe.

As with all tragedies, children of all ages may respond with spiritual questions about WHY something like this happens.  How could this be allowed, in a "good" universe?  Every parent will have a different response depending on her own life view, but an affirmation of hope, compassion, and the mystery of life is always in order:  "We don't know why, Sweetie.  I agree, it's tragic, and it doesn't seem fair.  Let's use this to remind us that every day is precious and every person is to be treasured, and let's think about what we can do to help."

Preschoolers can't be expected to distinguish what's real and what's not.  They should be protected from TV and radio coverage.  As you explain, reassure your child.

"There was an earthquake near Japan, in the ocean. It shook the ground so that buildings fell, and made big waves.  Your friend was right, people were killed and some parents and children were separated.  It is very sad.  But we are safe here, because the earthquake was very, very far away."

6-9 year olds- Kids this age will be able to understand the science behind a tsunami but still need your reassurance.  Research shows that kids this age do have nightmares in response to TV news images, so they should still be protected from electronic news coverage, but if they are interested, it's a great opportunity to read the newspaper with them.

"The earthquake broke the crust of the earth and lifted one side up so it was like a ping pong paddle pushing the water. That's called a tsunami.  It was so forceful the waves moved very quickly. Water is very heavy, so a big wave moving with that much force is very destructive. The water knocked down a lot of buildings.  It is very sad.  This happened very far away.  We don't get tsunamis and earthquakes around here, so we are safe."

Preteens-  Don't be fooled by your preteen's sophistication.  Kids of ten and up still need your reassurance that they're safe. 

They will almost certainly have talked about the disaster at school, so get them talking about the class discussion to hear any anxieties they may have.  Be prepared for questions about nuclear power plants.

"Yes, we do have a nuclear plant near us.  But we don't get earthquakes around here.  Hopefully, this disaster will motivate our government and other countries to put more resources into developing safer sources of energy, like solar power."

Teens -  Tragedies like this can shake a teen's sense of living in a safe world, just as he or she is experimenting with more independence.  Ask questions and listen for anxiety in the answers.  Reassure your teen about how rare such an event is.  Discuss how your family would stay connected in the event of a disaster, as unlikely as that is.  Use the opportunity to explore the idea of heroism -- were there heroes in Japan?  Would your teen be such a hero in an instance like that?  Teens are exploring their identities, working out how they fit into the world, and how they can make a contribution.  Discussions in which they envision themselves as courageous and heroic are always empowering.

Teens are also sorting out just what their connection is to humans in other parts of the world, so that's a wonderful discussion to have with this age group as well.   Our hearts tell us we have some responsibility to all humans, even those far across the globe.  How can we help?

Sometimes teens defend against disturbing news with cynicism about news coverage.  If your child raises this issue, you can use the opportunity for a "media literacy" discussion, but remind your child that the fact that the news media hypes stories to attract viewers doesn't diminish the pain of the events. 

5. Respect your child's individual reactions.  Every child processes in her own way. Some children will become very sad and cry, and that is to be honored.  Some will listen, change the subject, and then bring it up to ask you more questions at bedtime. Others will shrug it off, which doesn't mean they aren't compassionate but that they can only handle so much of the information at a time.

Be prepared for the issue to come up again with questions out of the blue, or for your child to need repeated reassurance.  If your child seems very interested in what's happening in Japan, help him process his emotions.  For instance:

  • Encourage him to draw pictures of what happened
  • Ask him to write a story about what happened
  • Suggest he do some research on earthquakes or tsunamis. 

Some children will want to tell you about the upsetting event over and over, which helps them work out their emotions.  Plan to spend extra time at bedtime helping your child fall asleep feeling safe and secure.

6. Be aware that children's anxieties often surface in other ways.  Children may develop sudden fears -- of being alone in a room, or left with a babysitter.  They might have nightmares or wet the bed.  They may "over-react" and have a meltdown about something that seems trivial to you, which allows them to let off stress by crying or raging. Children who are afraid of losing you to death might "test" you by misbehaving to see if you love them enough not to abandon them.

7. Empower your child.  Research shows that feeling unable to do something to help make things better makes people of all ages feel hopeless, cynical, and less compassionate. Discuss with your child what your family can do to help, such as:

  • Have a bake sale to raise money to donate to the Red Cross disaster effort in Japan
  • Send messages of love and support through Japan at Hope Letters (http://hopeletters.wordpress.com) who will translate them into Japanese and deliver them to local organizations for posting/broadcasting.
  • Give blood.
  • Remember the people of Japan in your family grace and prayers.

How did you talk with your kids? Any ideas about how your family can help? Please comment!



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Monday, March 14, 2011 | Permalink | Blog Home
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ana commented on 16-Mar-2011 02:53 AM
Thanks so much for the excellent post! This is something that I have really been thinking about, because my nephew keeps asking me questions! Thank you!!
Christine commented on 16-Mar-2011 12:30 PM
Nice article. I just want to add that my son's Father is stationed in the Navy in Japan, so our family's stress is a little different than most people. Also, my son is 11 and has autism. But, I'm always honest & open with him about everything. We talk
about it. We try to do positive actions. He handles situations like this pretty well. Thank god for the internet- so we always have updated information. btw- I like your suggestion about talking about heroes. That helped a lot with 9-11 and also with this
disaster. Good point.

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