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Talking With Kids About Disasters

Experts explain how to talk to your children about terrorism and natural disasters.
WebMD Feature

Your child comes home from school in a state. He or she is panic stricken. The reason? Take your pick. In today's chaotic world, he or she may be worried about anything and everything from natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and global warming to terrorism and the Iraq War.

So what's a concerned parent to do?

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"Today parents need to have an ongoing preemptive awareness of what the kids in school could be talking about," says Glenn Kashurba, MD, a child psychiatrist in Somerset, Pa. From natural disasters to terrorism, "parents really must keep abreast of news to stay ahead of their kids."

The good news is that with today's 24/7 news cycle, parents don't have to give up an hour a day to be able to track the latest natural disaster. It's as simple as logging on to the computer or cueing up your cell phone or blackberry to catch up on the day's headlines, says Kashurba, also a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Drexel University in Philadelphia and the chair of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry's Workgroup on Consumer Issues.

As part of the normal 'how was your day' conversation, it would be nice if kids feel comfortable saying 'this is what I heard in school today'," he says. "This really speaks to the whole idea of ongoing good communication between kids and parents."

You could also try being preemptive and bring up news of a natural disaster when your child gets home. "You might say, 'This is something that happened that you might hear a lot about,' he suggests." This way you can prepare them beforehand so they have a context to put the news in," he says. The goal is to make it harder for rumors and anxiety to take hold, he tells WebMD. "Parents can provide context and explanation about what is happening in the world to their kids," he says. "That goes a long way."

Never Let Them See You Sweat

One way or another, your children will hear about natural disasters and other problems in the world. When that happens, "you really need to reassure kids that it's very unlikely that anything will happen to them -- assuming you are not already directly affected," says psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman, MD, the executive director of the Bernard L. Pacella Parent Child Center in New York City.

When talking to your children, focus on the unlikelihood of anything bad happening to them, he says. "No matter how old the child is, there is always the sense of 'am I going to be OK?'"

While as a parent, you may also be concerned about natural disasters and/or coping with terrorism, "don't use your kids as a sounding board for your own anxiety and worries," Hoffman says. Instead, "use an adult spouse or friend."

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