The news out of Haiti is bleak, and as we wait for word from part of my extended family -- they live in Turgeau, which was badly affected by the 7.0 earthquake that hit the island yesterday, but wasn't destroyed -- I'm trying to figure out how to discuss the events with my young children. Or if I even should, at this stage.
When dealing with a tragedy, whether it's global or personal, experts agree that it's important to allow kids to talk about how they feel about the event. Dr. Paul Coleman, in his book How to Say It to Your Kids, advises against telling children not to worry about it, or otherwise dismissing their fears or concerns. "Parents should not conclude that discussing an upsetting event would retraumatize their child." he writes.
Instead, parents should try to provide age-appropriate details and facts, keeping in mind that the graphic photos and footage seen on the news is geared toward adults, not kids. PBS.org has a good guide to discussing the news with your children; their age-by-age insights can help you understand how kids process what they see on TV. While an 11-year-old may be able to think logically about the news and understand cause and effect, they're usually not able to see the big picture clearly; misconceptions about what they've seen too easily turn into the "truth" that gets discussed with their peers at school, and they may be unwilling to admit that they're afraid about what's happening. A 5-year-old, on the other hand, may mix up reality with fantasy, think that he or she somehow caused the event, or take information literally; they also often assume that what they see on TV is happening, nearby, in real time. "Preschoolers should be shielded from news coverage of violent events whenever possible," the experts and PBS advise.
After Hurricane Katrina, Hal Runkle, founder of ScreamFree Living, pointed out that while adults were struggling to understand the situation, it's too easy to forget that kids may be struggling, too. "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?'" he told Dadstoday.com.
You can't "fix" the problem, but you can help ease your child's fears and help them cope. "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," Runkle says. "If you have religious beliefs, this is also a good time to share them with your children."
I heard the news about the quake while I was at a friend's house; though we were chatting quietly in the dining room, we soon overheard our 5-year-olds wondering, "What's an earthquake?" Kids pick up on information surprisingly fast -- and they key in to your reactions even faster. If you stay calm and rational, they're more likely to as well.
Right now, all I can do is gather information, wait, and hope. Here's a quick list of charities that are raising funds for relief efforts in Haiti; please consider them, as even a few dollars can make a huge difference right now. Our teens and tweens are well-equipped to handle most of the information that's coming out of Haiti right now (though I'd rather keep the away from the more graphic footage, if I can) and add their hopes and prayers to the mix. Our young kids, though? I'll explain what an earthquake is, and I'll answer any other questions they lob at me, but that's it, for now.
Parents, do you discuss the news with your children? How do you explain a natural disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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