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Talking With Kids About Disasters

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

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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 together."

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 Internet."

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."

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Reviewed on April 07, 2007

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