Talking To Your Child After a Natural Disaster

On Monday, May 20th, a massive tornado ripped through the Oklahoma suburb of Moore, leveling entire neighborhoods, setting buildings on fire and landing a direct hit to an elementary school.

For me, the cruelty of this natural disaster is how innocent children, packing up their backpacks and planning afterschool play dates, were harmed, traumatized, and killed. My immediate thoughts and concerns went to parents, teachers, and other loved ones impacted by this horrific event, identical to how many of us were feeling when 20 first-graders were killed in Newtown, CT in November 2012.

The circumstances are indeed dissimilar but that doesn’t lessen feelings of loss, anguish, sadness, and disbelief that parents and other adults share when such tragedies befall us.

In the aftermath of the Oklahoma tornado tragedy if you’re wondering how to talk to your children about tragedy and natural disasters, you’re not alone. It’s  completely normal to feel overwhelmed by such catastrophe. The key, however, is including children in the dialogue.

It is vital that adults talk with children and keep lines of communication open. Children are being exposed to stories and photos of dislocated families, destroyed homes and a rising death toll.

When children are left alone with information, they have the capacity to imagine far worse than reality. For example, young children often confuse facts with fantasy and may not realize that the same images are shown over and over again on television. Rather they may think that the disasters are happening over and over again.

There are concrete tools for talking with and helping children cope with the tornado in Oklahoma and other tragedies:

  • Encourage ongoing dialogue. The more communication the better. One conversation is not enough. Children are better able to take in and cope with small amounts of information at a time.
  • Be honest.  Use developmentally appropriate words and concepts that children can understand.
  • Encourage children to ask questions. Make sure that you listen to the questions being asked and concerns being expressed. Don’t assume and don’t project your fears onto your children. Answer the questions that children ask. Keep it to that. Do not volunteer more information than asked because children may not be ready to handle that information. Unconsciously, they know what they can handle and when.
  • Know the facts. Be able to explain what a natural disaster is as well as how and why they happen. Use simple, clear facts and avoid opinions.
  • Normalize feelings – especially fear. It is important that a child not be left with distressing feelings. A child may demonstrate their distressing feelings by throwing temper tantrums, an inability to sleep or having meltdowns. Pay attention to unusual behavior and address behaviors head on.
  • Turn OFF the television. Watching the devastation over and over and over again only heightens a child’s worry and fear. Research has shown that watching media coverage, especially repeated viewing, can create stress for children even when they are not directly exposed to disaster.
  • Reassure children that they will be taken care of and that you will do everything that you can do to protect them. DO NOT tell them that “this will never happen to you” because as we know all too well, a natural disaster can happen anytime, anywhere.
  • Use the conversation as an opportunity for learning.Talk about what you and your family would do in the event of a natural disaster. Make a plan. The reassurance will provide comfort.
  • Encourage children to relax. Some options include: coloring, reading poetry, singing songs, and yoga.
  • Maintain a consistent routine because children equate a routine with stability and security.

The important thing to know is that children take their coping cues from us, the trusted adults in their lives. This isn’t to say that we should cover up our emotions. Rather, we need to model healthy coping mechanisms for our children, including talking, moderating news intake, self-care (eating, sleeping, bathing), and expressing our wide range of feelings.

Including children in the dialogue about a natural disaster is essential because it demonstrates that parents are trustworthy and that honesty is a core family value.