Talking With Children About Natural Disasters: A Balancing Act Back »

Written by Andrea Knox, former SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Development & Resiliency Field Specialist.

Natural disasters such as the devastating tornado that recently touched down in Oklahoma evoke many emotions. Sympathy for the families who lost loved ones, teachers who lost students and a community forever changed is a shared response. Fear that the same thing could happen to your family may also be a common response. When a devastating event happens in one community we may find ourselves thinking what we would have done had we been in their shoes. Children are no different. While we may not notice them paying direct attention, chances are they have still caught a glimpse of the news or heard talk among others about the events. This may cause children to feel concerned, anxious or fearful.

With young children it is important to limit their exposure to television and media stories which share information possibly frightening for the child. Again, while they may not appear attentive, it is realistic to assume children are absorbing the information. Thus, it is important to create an open environment where children feel free to ask questions and talk about the events. Responding to questions with basic, but honest information fitting for their age and developmental level is a good place to start. Going into details is not necessary. Consider your child’s own temperament. Some children are naturally more susceptible to reacting with empathy and fear. Let the child openly talk about her concerns. Reassure them that you do everything you can to keep them safe. This may be a good time to discuss precautions and safety plans you can have in place in case of an emergency. Point out that when tragic events happen there are many people to help, care and comfort one another. 

Although it is tempting, it is important not to ignore or gloss over the situation if you sense your child is concerned especially for school aged children. Letting children keep their worrisome feelings to themselves can be harmful. Silence may lead to the child filling in the blanks himself with his imagination which can be much worse than the already tragic event. At the same time we do not want to gloss over the situation when they have questions by inferring it is silly to worry. By acknowledging children’s concerns we let them know that it is okay to feel that way. This reaffirms to them they can come to you when they have a concern. Providing accurate information is also important. Children will eventually realize if you are giving false information or making things up which in turn can alter the level of trust they place in your discussions.

Above all, children typically just want to be kids living carefree lives. Responding appropriately to their concerns is a balancing act tailored to the individual child’s age, development and natural temperament.  Providing a supportive and open atmosphere for them to dialogue about potentially scary events such as natural disasters helps them get back to being themselves and that carefree life.


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