Talking to Children About Disasters
After the terrorism attacks of 9/11 parents found themselves, often for the first time, explaining to their children how such a horrific event could happen. Then, parents at least had the comfort of blaming "bad people." But now, with Hurricane Katrina, parents are once again finding themselves needing to explain how such a catastrophe could happen – and they don't have anyone on whom to assign blame.
"As we, as adults, struggle to grasp the enormity of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, we may forget our kids are struggling too," says Hal Runkel, founder of ScreamFree Living and creator of the ScreamFree Parenting Program, an iParenting Media Award winner. "We should expect and be prepared to answer questions ranging from 'God said he'd never flood the world again – and I thought he kept his promises' (asked by my 6-year-old over dinner the other night), to 'Could that (or why did it) happen to us?'"
"The most important thing to do is to talk to your kids about it – but don't try to 'fix' it," says Runkel. "Let them know that it's OK to ask questions, even when you don't have all the answers. Participate in your children's TV watching; watch it with them so you can discuss what you've seen. You might want to point out all the heroic moments as well. Remember to let them experience their emotions without telling them they are 'being silly.' Your children are as entitled to their feelings as you are, so give them the space they need to experience them. If you have religious beliefs, this is also a good time to share them with your children."
One of the key tenets of Runkel's ScreamFree Parenting program is mastering the concept of "Space and Place." That means that you need to give your kids the space to have certain responses, emotions and expressions, yet as the parent, you can be the architect of the "place" in which that child operates.
Most children over the age of 4 will want to talk about the disaster. There are several age-appropriate responses – and remember that maturity may be a better measure than calendar age.
Preschooler: It's important for preschoolers to stick to their routines. They may need extra reassurance or want to sleep in your bed for a night or two. Try to avoid unnecessary separations if you can and encourage them to express how they feel through play and art.
Elementary children: They'll also desire a little extra attention and will find familial routines calming. Be sure to continue to be consistent in your handling of chores and behaviors and encourage their expression of thoughts and feelings through conversations and play.
Adolescents: Listen to them, but don't force them to talk about feelings and emotions. Encourage them to talk among their peers and to participate in physical activities so they can release some of their anxiety.
For all kids: You often have the best conversations when you're not making a big deal out of it – just have casual conversations while driving, playing Legos or hanging out on the playground.
For everyone: Regardless of their age (this means Mom and Dad too), rehearse safety measures in case of emergency. Then, the best thing you can do is help those in need – whether it's the victims of Hurricane Katrina or just those less fortunate in your community. Helping others is a great way we can show our compassion and empower our kids.