Talking With Kids About Disasters
Experts explain how to talk to your children about terrorism and natural disasters.
Limit Their Exposure to the News
"One of the things we learned from Sept. 11, 2001 is that people can be
very traumatized from watching events like that on television," Kashurba
says. Many adults developed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from watching
the planes hit the twin towers on TV. A psychological disorder, PTSD is marked
by flashbacks of the event, feelings of numbness or detachment from everyday
life, irritability, angry outbursts, and trouble concentrating.
"We really like to try to keep young kids away from watching things like
that on television," he says. "These are very intense images with very
little context," he says. Plus, the newscast tends to jump around. "You
are watching a traumatic event in New York City, something from the war in Iraq
and then a fire down the street, so all the images get jumbled
Young children's sense of reality is not well developed, Hoffman says, so
when they watch the news, "They may think a new plane is hitting a new
building each time they watch the terrorist attacks," Hoffman says.
"Less is more for preschool- or school-aged children."
Keep in mind also that TV is not the only medium for news in today's world.
In 2007, kids can also be exposed to news about a natural disaster when they
log onto the computer to IM with their friends. "We like to have the
computer in a place where it is in view of the parents, not in their room,"
Kashurba says. "Just like we like to have their TV watching supervised, we
also like there to be supervision of children's exposure on the
There is no set age for children to begin watching the news or reading it
online, experts say. However, in general most teens are ready to benefit from
watching the news. "I like to watch with them to give the news some
context," says Kashurba, who has teenaged children. "Or at the dinner
table, I may say 'gee I read in the paper that ...' to open up communication
about something in the news," he suggests.
You don't have to be directly affected to be traumatized by a natural
disaster or terrorism, says Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Robert R.
Butterworth, PhD. "Some kids that are directly affected have no problems,
and then kids who only see an event on TV do have problems, so you no longer
have to be present to be affected."
Play It Out
The best way to help children recover from a natural disaster or threat of a
terrorist attack is to help them work through their fears.
Butterworth explains that there are two major securities in a child's life
-- the security of their physical environment and the security of their
parents. "In a natural disaster, both are threatened."
Young children may not be able to express how they feel about a natural
disaster or cope with terrorism through words, but they can do so through
drawing or playing, he says. "Have them draw what happened and ask how the
person in the drawing feels," he says, or "ask them to draw what they
are afraid of and then talk to them while they are drawing."