When Bad Things Happen. Talking to Children about Disasters

Children are asking questions about what is happening to the people impacted by our recent Hurricanes – or asking why it happened to them.

After the terrorism attacks of 9/11 parents found themselves, often for the first time, explaining to their children how such a horrific event could happen. They found themselves in a similar situation a year later explaining the chilling sniper attacks on our city in the fall of 2002. At least in both those situations, parents at least had the comfort of blaming “bad people.” But now, with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, parents are once again finding themselves needing to explain how such a catastrophe could happen – and they don’t have anyone on whom to assign blame.

“As we, as adults, struggle to grasp the enormity of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and Rita, we may forget our kids are struggling too,” says Hal Runkel, LMFT, founder of ScreamFree Living (www.screamfree.com) , and creator of the ScreamFree Parenting Program. ”We should expect, and be prepared to answer – questions ranging from: “God said he’d never flood the world again – and I thought he kept his promises (asked by my six-year-old over dinner the other night),” to “Could that (or why did it) happen to us?”

“The most important thing to do,” recommends Runkel, “is to talk to your kids about it – but don’t try to ‘fix’ it. Let them know that it’s OK to ask questions, even when you don’t have all the answers. Participate in your children’s TV watching; watch it with them so you can discuss what you’ve seen. You might want to point out all the heroic moments as well. Remember to let them experience their emotions without telling them they are ‘being silly.’ Your children are as entitled to their feelings as you are, so give them the space they need to experience them. If you have religious beliefs, this is also a good time to share them with your children.”

One of the key tenets of Runkel’s “ScreamFree Parenting” program is mastering the concept of “Space and Place”. That means that you need to give your kids the space to have certain responses, emotions and expressions, yet as the parent, you can be the architect of the “place” in which that child operates.

Most children over the age of four will want to talk about these disasters. There are several age appropriate responses – and remember that maturity may be a better measure than calendar age.

• Preschooler – it’s important for preschoolers to stick to their routines. They may need extra reassurance or want to sleep in your bed for a night or two. Try to avoid unnecessary separations if you can and encourage them to express how they feel through play and art.

• Elementary School Children – they’ll also desire a little extra attention and will find familial routines calming. Be sure to continue to be consistent in your handling of chores and behaviors and encourage their expression of thoughts and feelings through conversations and play.

• Adolescents – listen to them, but don’t force them to talk about feelings and emotions. Encourage them to talk amongst their peers and to participate in physical activities so they can release some of their anxiety.

• For all kids, you often have the best conversations when you’re not making a big deal out of it – just have casual conversations while driving, playing legos, or hanging out on the playground.

For everyone, regardless of their age (this means mom and dad too), rehearse safety measures in case of emergency. Then, the best thing you can do is help those in need – whether it’s the victims of hurricanes, or just those less fortunate in your community. Helping others is a great way we can show our compassion and empower our kids.

Parents can also access some helpful websites for more information:

• DHHS, National Mental Health Information Center, tips for talking about disasters,http://www.mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/cmhs/EmergencyServices/after.asp

• Educators for Social Responsibility, talking to children about violence in the world,http://www.esrnational.org/guide.htm

• American Academy for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, talking to a child affected by hurricane Katrina,http://www.aacap.org/publications/disasterresponse/

• ScreamFree Parenting, advice on how to increase communication and improve your relationship with your children, www.screamfree.com

About WF Staff

Washington FAMILY Staff

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