Talking to children about tragedy

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  January 13, 2010 03:02 PM

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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 lalphonse@globe.com.

 

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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5 comments so far...
  1. This obsession with age-appropriateness has the net effect of ultimately producing self-absorbed young adults who are thoroughly incapable of dealing with the actual harshness of the world.

    I'm not saying force your five year old to take a dying dog out back and shoot it. I'm saying that dealing with fear, with sorrow, with frustration are all necessary parts of growing up.

    Your kids won't grow up properly if you "protect" them from the knowledge that people die. Sometimes they die in terrible pain. Sometimes they die without reason. Sometimes they die unjustly. You will produce a stunted adult if you do not let your children learn these things, learn how to wrestle with the pain, and learn how to wrestle with the fear.


    Thanks for your comment, D. I think there's a difference between sheltering your child and discussing things in an age-appropriate way. What my 5-year-old can understand about the situation in Haiti, for example, is different from what our 11-year-old can understand, and both are different from what our 16-year-old can understand. -- LMA

    Posted by D January 13, 10 06:08 PM
  1. We discuss stuff if I know they've heard about it. We explain natural disasters 'clinically' - they get a very brief scientific explanation, and reassurance that big ones are not common, and are unlikely to directly affect us. My 10 year old is getting to the age where he wants to know more, and we find age-appropriate information together, but my 7 year old is happy with the quick explanation.

    Posted by akmom January 13, 10 08:29 PM
  1. My approach with both my 6 yr old son and 4 yr old son has been to share the facts of what happened in Haiti (they saw me crying as I saw the photographs so hard to avoid explaining it). I have shown them some of the devastation since they were very curious what an earthquake does. That said, we moved right into action and drew pictures for the children and tapped into our piggy banks for donations. They came up with $25 dollars between them and are very excited to put their change in an envelope and mail to Haiti. I feel it is ok to share the pain and grief of such a tragedy with our children and to show them how they can make a difference in the world

    Posted by Val January 14, 10 06:39 AM
  1. At whyzz.com, the source for kid-friendly answers on how the world works, we parse tough news stories into easy to understand language for kids and parents alike. Here's our advice for talking to kids about the tragedy in Haiti:

    http://whyzz.com/answer/detail/search/haiti/qid/1890/category/89/subcategory/90

    Posted by Alli January 14, 10 02:04 PM
  1. Thank you for this post. I agree that it is very important to speak honestly -- which does not necessarily mean graphically -- with children about events. Living in Florida and having gone through Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, our daughter, who is now twelve, experienced the impact, the results and the clean up. We answered her questions directly and talked openly about how we felt during the storms.

    I love that Val shared her sadness with her children and then -- and this step is so important -- they took action. You cannot be sitting in fear and taking action at the same time. This was empowering for her children.

    A link to your post is in the January 26th issue of Parenting News You Can Use, a free weekly e-zine from Whole Hearted Parenting. Please visit www.WholeHeartedParenting.com to subscribe.

    Thank you, again.

    Posted by Maggie Macaulay, MS Ed January 16, 10 02:23 PM
 
5 comments so far...
  1. This obsession with age-appropriateness has the net effect of ultimately producing self-absorbed young adults who are thoroughly incapable of dealing with the actual harshness of the world.

    I'm not saying force your five year old to take a dying dog out back and shoot it. I'm saying that dealing with fear, with sorrow, with frustration are all necessary parts of growing up.

    Your kids won't grow up properly if you "protect" them from the knowledge that people die. Sometimes they die in terrible pain. Sometimes they die without reason. Sometimes they die unjustly. You will produce a stunted adult if you do not let your children learn these things, learn how to wrestle with the pain, and learn how to wrestle with the fear.


    Thanks for your comment, D. I think there's a difference between sheltering your child and discussing things in an age-appropriate way. What my 5-year-old can understand about the situation in Haiti, for example, is different from what our 11-year-old can understand, and both are different from what our 16-year-old can understand. -- LMA

    Posted by D January 13, 10 06:08 PM
  1. We discuss stuff if I know they've heard about it. We explain natural disasters 'clinically' - they get a very brief scientific explanation, and reassurance that big ones are not common, and are unlikely to directly affect us. My 10 year old is getting to the age where he wants to know more, and we find age-appropriate information together, but my 7 year old is happy with the quick explanation.

    Posted by akmom January 13, 10 08:29 PM
  1. My approach with both my 6 yr old son and 4 yr old son has been to share the facts of what happened in Haiti (they saw me crying as I saw the photographs so hard to avoid explaining it). I have shown them some of the devastation since they were very curious what an earthquake does. That said, we moved right into action and drew pictures for the children and tapped into our piggy banks for donations. They came up with $25 dollars between them and are very excited to put their change in an envelope and mail to Haiti. I feel it is ok to share the pain and grief of such a tragedy with our children and to show them how they can make a difference in the world

    Posted by Val January 14, 10 06:39 AM
  1. At whyzz.com, the source for kid-friendly answers on how the world works, we parse tough news stories into easy to understand language for kids and parents alike. Here's our advice for talking to kids about the tragedy in Haiti:

    http://whyzz.com/answer/detail/search/haiti/qid/1890/category/89/subcategory/90

    Posted by Alli January 14, 10 02:04 PM
  1. Thank you for this post. I agree that it is very important to speak honestly -- which does not necessarily mean graphically -- with children about events. Living in Florida and having gone through Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, our daughter, who is now twelve, experienced the impact, the results and the clean up. We answered her questions directly and talked openly about how we felt during the storms.

    I love that Val shared her sadness with her children and then -- and this step is so important -- they took action. You cannot be sitting in fear and taking action at the same time. This was empowering for her children.

    A link to your post is in the January 26th issue of Parenting News You Can Use, a free weekly e-zine from Whole Hearted Parenting. Please visit www.WholeHeartedParenting.com to subscribe.

    Thank you, again.

    Posted by Maggie Macaulay, MS Ed January 16, 10 02:23 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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