Talking With Kids About Disasters

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

Reviewed by John M Goldenring, MD, JD, MPH on April 07, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

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?

"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."

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."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Glenn Kashurba, MD, child psychiatrist, Somerset, Pa.; clinical assistant professor of psychiatry, Drexel University, Philadelphia; chairman, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry's Workgroup on Consumer Issues. Leon Hoffman, MD, psychoanalyst, New York City; executive director, Bernard L. Pacella Parent Child Center. Robert R. Butterworth, PhD, psychotherapist, Los Angeles.

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