Helping kids in the aftermath of the earthquake

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  March 14, 2011 06:00 AM

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Barbara --

All day yesterday and this morning [Sat & Sun], we had the TV on with reports of the earthquake -- our children are 4 and 7 -- and now I'm beginning to think we made a mistake. The younger asked several times this morning, "Is the earthquake coming here?" and this afternoon, the older one said, "We can't go to Cape Cod this summer." When I asked why, you guessed it: she said, "Cause a giant wave could come."

I told them Cape Cod was safe. When she brought it up a second time, her dad said, "You don't need to worry about this. It's safe."

I know you can't protect children from the world, but I fear I have made a big mistake. We've turned off the TV when they are awake, but how do I address these now very real fears?

From: UhOh, Wellesley

Dear UhOh,

Children tend to personalize almost everything, and, as you've discovered, when it's something big and scary like this, they run with the bits and pieces of information they have -- whether it's accurate or not, relevant or not -- and weave them into a story based on their life experience and cognitive development. Your 5-year-old is only capable of reasoning, "This bad thing called an earthquake happened. It could happen here." Your 7-year-old, with more developed cognition, was able to put pieces together in a more complicated way: "A giant wave killed people in Japan. There are waves at Cape Cod. We can't go to Cape Cod."

This isn't limited to young children. Think of it as if all children have a neon sign in their brains. When something frightening happens, the sign goes into active mode, blinking furiously: "What about me? Am I safe?" As they get older and have gathered experience coping with something scary and have facts at their disposal, they are able to flip the switch off themselves: "I'm OK. Earthquakes don't happen in Boston."

UhOh, going forward, don't pooh-pooh their concerns. Your husband's words, "You don't need to worry about that," aren't helpful because she is worrying about it. The worry is real for her, even if it isn't rational. A better answer is to say, "It's true, there are waves in Cape Cod, and tsunamis are giant waves. I've never heard of tsunami on Cape Cod. Tsunamis usually are in the Pacific Ocean and Cape Cod is in the Atlantic." Show her on a map.

Using a map is very helpful with children 7 or 8 and younger, because it's concrete -- they can see the facts and draw true conclusions -- and it also shows a respect for their question. Tell them, "This is where we live. This is where the earthquake happened. It's far away." If the disaster is close but not close enough to be a concern, help them gain perspective: "It looks like it isn't very far away, but if we were driving, it would take X hours to get there. That's as much as watching your favorite video XX times!"

Older children will ask very specific questions because they are trying to put information into their sphere of understanding. Here's a good site that explains about a tsunami, for instance. Look at it yourself before you decide if it would be helpful to your child.

Sometimes, when something is scary, children need literal permission to talk about it. Again, this can be true of any age child. Ask a young child, "Have you heard about something called a tsunami?" Ask an older one, "What have you heard about the tsunami?" If a child (of any age) shrugs it off or says they haven't heard about it, it could be true or it could be that they don't want to think about. A good answer is, "If you hear about /if you want to talk about it, let me know." That says that it's not so scary that we -- you and I -- can't talk about it. If a child (of any age) says, "Yeah, people were talking about it in school," always ask, "Tell me what you know," before you start to talk. That enables you to speak at their level without delivering too much or too little info.

UhOh, even though you know your kids know about the earthquake, I would take both these steps, nonetheless.

For children of any age, doing something concrete helps them feel better. This will be particularly true for children who have Japanese-American friends with family they are worried about in Japan. Find ways together to learn how you can donate money or materials to help in the recovery. Here's a list compiled by Salon.com of organizations and charities that are helping.

If you have a school-age child who has a Japanese-American classmate, talk at dinner tonight about what that family must be experiencing. They may want to say something to the friend, but not know what to say. Help them frame words. Also ask if they talked about it in school today. You want to stay on top of what they are saying in school because you want to make the issue something you all talk about as a family. Some children will develop nightmares and sleep issues because of their worries, which is another reason why you want to keep the conversation open.

This is a big topic. This is the article I wrote immediately after 9/11 about how to help children. Many of the suggestions are valid in this tragedy, too.

By the way, it is always OK, indeed preferable, to show that you, too, are upset: "This is so sad, it makes me very upset." The key is to model how to channel your feelings, and keep it age-appropriate: "I keep thinking about all those families whose children don't even have toys now. Let's see if we can donate toys." Obviously, you might be worried about more serious things like water and food, but that's too frightening a thought for most children.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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8 comments so far...
  1. I think Barbara is pretty spot on here. When I was young, probably around age 6, the Cold War fears were escalating and we actually did "duck and cover" drills in first grade (I'm almost 36, so this was NOT in the 1950's, but in the early 1980's). Russia was always in the news and someone, somewhere along the way, made me aware of the possibility of an all-out nuclear war or airstrike.

    I remember asking my parents about this and receiving a non-committal answer much like you and your husband have given your children in this instance. I felt totally dismissed and slightly belittled for my fears - and for several years, I kept them to myself but laid awake for long periods of time most nights, wondering if Russian kids were as scared as I was, hoping that my parents would live...and just generally being privately terrified.

    Obviously, as time went on, those fears faded but not through familial comfort. Rather, my level of understanding and cognition changed and of course eventually, the Cold War ended without incident. Yet, I still feel that with a little more explanation and understanding from my parents back then, I probably would have slept a lot better through those years until the cognition changes happened. : )

    Don't dismiss the fears your kids have (simply saying not to worry, it won't happen is a bit dismissive). Acknowledge them, address them with age appropriate facts (Barbara's advice on explaining the tsunami is perfect!) and be there to comfort them. It'll go a long way to helping those fears adjust and eventually melt away - sooner rather than later.

    Actually, to this day, my own parents have no idea how frightened I was way back then, or that sometimes I would cry in my bed because of that fear and did so very quietly so as not to have them hear. They were and are loving but very pragmatic and would have found it all silly. Sure, as an adult I can understand that it IS silly, but as a young child, it was all too real.


    Posted by Phe March 14, 11 08:09 AM
  1. I'm trying hard to make sure my kids feel some control.

    We have often talked about how to react in different types of disasters... what do you do if the house catches fire while you are in bed? what do you do if there is a tornado warning? where do you go in the house if there is a hurricane, and why?

    This week I will have the kids help me plan what to put in our emergency kits, which sorely need re-stocking.

    Posted by HP March 14, 11 11:29 AM
  1. I wish Barbara had addressed the issue of TV news specifically, as that seems to be a big part of what the LW is asking about. My feeling is that, yes, learning facts about the world around us can sometimes get kids thinking and worrying and asking questions that might be very difficult for us to address or answer. You have a choice: Turn it off, try to protect them from knowledge of anything unpleasant (you can't, by the way) and pretend there is nothing bad in the world. Or you can be a parent and have the kind of open, fact based discussions that Barbara recommends.

    Posted by geocool March 14, 11 11:34 AM
  1. Yes, you surely can't protect them from knowledge of anything pleasant or the reality of bad things that happen. But you CAN turn it off.

    It may be unpopular to say, but my observation is that we are in an era (or maybe we always were?) in which adults have forgotten that we, as parents, sometimes need to remember that our children come before our interests. Sure, it's interesting to watch. But the repetition and the visual images are not good for young kids, so you delay gratification, and you watch after they go to bed.

    I'm not condemning this mom--all of us have done it at one time or another, getting carried away with our own fascination. There's no crime in that. It can just be a great opportunity to reflect and make different choices in the future.

    For those who will reply that it's not possible to shield kids from an event...well, of course not. But it IS possible to shield them from overexposure or excessive visual exposure (which carries its own kind of power), which seems to be the name of the game in the era of 24 hour news.

    For what it's worth, my daughter, who is now 11, and who was almost two at the time of 9/11, has NEVER seen video footage of the towers being hit or collapsing. She knows about the event--we told her when she was at an age when it was being discussed and when we felt she could make some sense of it, in her own way. The details have been provided, bit by bit, over the years, as it comes up. At this point, if she wanted to see it, she could--we would watch it with her--ONCE--and discuss it. It also seems important to note that this has not been done by "hiding" or "prohibiting" anything. Kids don't know to ask about things they haven't been exposed to, so for years, she just didn't ask. When she did, we answered. It really wasn't that hard.

    Posted by Robin March 14, 11 01:09 PM
  1. Also, I want to pass on an invaluable resource from the inimitable Mister Rogers (thanks to my friend Heidi, who passed this along to me). Here's what he said about these things:

    "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say, ..."Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers--so many caring people in this world."

    Look for the helpers. That's a great idea.

    Posted by Robin March 14, 11 01:14 PM
  1. "But it IS possible to shield them from overexposure or excessive visual exposure"

    Yes! It's not as if the choice is between "try to protect them from knowledge of anything unpleasant (you can't, by the way)" versus having the worst disasters front and center with horrific visuals for hours straight.

    There is really just a common sense middle ground. A lot of the news coverage included visuals that are simply too violent/scary/horrible for a preschooler to process. Remember, the news is not geared towards children and doesn't take into account their developmental and cognitive abilities (nor should it). So as fascinating as it is for the adults to be seeing and learning about this all day, far better to remember the effect that the images will have on your kids and *moderate* what you watch and how much you watch it. Remember also that whatever they do see, they do not have the same tools to process it -- so, as you watch, you need to be actively helping them process it. I really like Robin's mother's words about looking for the helpers!

    Obviously it isn't the end of the world if they see too much. Just try to remember that because it is true and news doesn't mean it is presented in a developmentally appropriate way for your kids. So, now that they've seen so much of it, be really proactive in helping them process.

    Posted by jjlen March 14, 11 02:07 PM
  1. Most importantly, why in the world would you have the tv on all weekend with 2 little kids anyway? Get them outside, play games, read books.

    Posted by dad March 14, 11 04:55 PM
  1. So let's look at the good that came from this:

    1) Because the news was on, the children learned a lot of true facts about the disaster, as opposed to hearing who knows what from their peers on the playground.
    2) They had worries and questions, and because you watched together, they felt comfortable bringing these to you (their parents).
    3) You got a golden opportunity to have an open and frank discussion about the bad things that sometimes happen in the world, a true teachable moment.

    I say "win, win, win." As they get older, the next challenges could include bullying, or drugs, or sex / birth control. This is a model for how I'd want to handle those situations, too. Make sure they have the facts. Make sure they feel comfortable coming to you with their questions and concerns. Make sure you're there when they need you.

    I should add that I do feel a bit like a hypocrite, because this stuff was not on the TV at my house this weekend. The idea that my kids would allow me half an hour to sit down and watch a program of my choosing while they're in the room is, well, laughable. (You're right, Robin, I need to put my children first more. Lol.)

    Posted by geocool March 15, 11 11:05 AM
 
8 comments so far...
  1. I think Barbara is pretty spot on here. When I was young, probably around age 6, the Cold War fears were escalating and we actually did "duck and cover" drills in first grade (I'm almost 36, so this was NOT in the 1950's, but in the early 1980's). Russia was always in the news and someone, somewhere along the way, made me aware of the possibility of an all-out nuclear war or airstrike.

    I remember asking my parents about this and receiving a non-committal answer much like you and your husband have given your children in this instance. I felt totally dismissed and slightly belittled for my fears - and for several years, I kept them to myself but laid awake for long periods of time most nights, wondering if Russian kids were as scared as I was, hoping that my parents would live...and just generally being privately terrified.

    Obviously, as time went on, those fears faded but not through familial comfort. Rather, my level of understanding and cognition changed and of course eventually, the Cold War ended without incident. Yet, I still feel that with a little more explanation and understanding from my parents back then, I probably would have slept a lot better through those years until the cognition changes happened. : )

    Don't dismiss the fears your kids have (simply saying not to worry, it won't happen is a bit dismissive). Acknowledge them, address them with age appropriate facts (Barbara's advice on explaining the tsunami is perfect!) and be there to comfort them. It'll go a long way to helping those fears adjust and eventually melt away - sooner rather than later.

    Actually, to this day, my own parents have no idea how frightened I was way back then, or that sometimes I would cry in my bed because of that fear and did so very quietly so as not to have them hear. They were and are loving but very pragmatic and would have found it all silly. Sure, as an adult I can understand that it IS silly, but as a young child, it was all too real.


    Posted by Phe March 14, 11 08:09 AM
  1. I'm trying hard to make sure my kids feel some control.

    We have often talked about how to react in different types of disasters... what do you do if the house catches fire while you are in bed? what do you do if there is a tornado warning? where do you go in the house if there is a hurricane, and why?

    This week I will have the kids help me plan what to put in our emergency kits, which sorely need re-stocking.

    Posted by HP March 14, 11 11:29 AM
  1. I wish Barbara had addressed the issue of TV news specifically, as that seems to be a big part of what the LW is asking about. My feeling is that, yes, learning facts about the world around us can sometimes get kids thinking and worrying and asking questions that might be very difficult for us to address or answer. You have a choice: Turn it off, try to protect them from knowledge of anything unpleasant (you can't, by the way) and pretend there is nothing bad in the world. Or you can be a parent and have the kind of open, fact based discussions that Barbara recommends.

    Posted by geocool March 14, 11 11:34 AM
  1. Yes, you surely can't protect them from knowledge of anything pleasant or the reality of bad things that happen. But you CAN turn it off.

    It may be unpopular to say, but my observation is that we are in an era (or maybe we always were?) in which adults have forgotten that we, as parents, sometimes need to remember that our children come before our interests. Sure, it's interesting to watch. But the repetition and the visual images are not good for young kids, so you delay gratification, and you watch after they go to bed.

    I'm not condemning this mom--all of us have done it at one time or another, getting carried away with our own fascination. There's no crime in that. It can just be a great opportunity to reflect and make different choices in the future.

    For those who will reply that it's not possible to shield kids from an event...well, of course not. But it IS possible to shield them from overexposure or excessive visual exposure (which carries its own kind of power), which seems to be the name of the game in the era of 24 hour news.

    For what it's worth, my daughter, who is now 11, and who was almost two at the time of 9/11, has NEVER seen video footage of the towers being hit or collapsing. She knows about the event--we told her when she was at an age when it was being discussed and when we felt she could make some sense of it, in her own way. The details have been provided, bit by bit, over the years, as it comes up. At this point, if she wanted to see it, she could--we would watch it with her--ONCE--and discuss it. It also seems important to note that this has not been done by "hiding" or "prohibiting" anything. Kids don't know to ask about things they haven't been exposed to, so for years, she just didn't ask. When she did, we answered. It really wasn't that hard.

    Posted by Robin March 14, 11 01:09 PM
  1. Also, I want to pass on an invaluable resource from the inimitable Mister Rogers (thanks to my friend Heidi, who passed this along to me). Here's what he said about these things:

    "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say, ..."Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers--so many caring people in this world."

    Look for the helpers. That's a great idea.

    Posted by Robin March 14, 11 01:14 PM
  1. "But it IS possible to shield them from overexposure or excessive visual exposure"

    Yes! It's not as if the choice is between "try to protect them from knowledge of anything unpleasant (you can't, by the way)" versus having the worst disasters front and center with horrific visuals for hours straight.

    There is really just a common sense middle ground. A lot of the news coverage included visuals that are simply too violent/scary/horrible for a preschooler to process. Remember, the news is not geared towards children and doesn't take into account their developmental and cognitive abilities (nor should it). So as fascinating as it is for the adults to be seeing and learning about this all day, far better to remember the effect that the images will have on your kids and *moderate* what you watch and how much you watch it. Remember also that whatever they do see, they do not have the same tools to process it -- so, as you watch, you need to be actively helping them process it. I really like Robin's mother's words about looking for the helpers!

    Obviously it isn't the end of the world if they see too much. Just try to remember that because it is true and news doesn't mean it is presented in a developmentally appropriate way for your kids. So, now that they've seen so much of it, be really proactive in helping them process.

    Posted by jjlen March 14, 11 02:07 PM
  1. Most importantly, why in the world would you have the tv on all weekend with 2 little kids anyway? Get them outside, play games, read books.

    Posted by dad March 14, 11 04:55 PM
  1. So let's look at the good that came from this:

    1) Because the news was on, the children learned a lot of true facts about the disaster, as opposed to hearing who knows what from their peers on the playground.
    2) They had worries and questions, and because you watched together, they felt comfortable bringing these to you (their parents).
    3) You got a golden opportunity to have an open and frank discussion about the bad things that sometimes happen in the world, a true teachable moment.

    I say "win, win, win." As they get older, the next challenges could include bullying, or drugs, or sex / birth control. This is a model for how I'd want to handle those situations, too. Make sure they have the facts. Make sure they feel comfortable coming to you with their questions and concerns. Make sure you're there when they need you.

    I should add that I do feel a bit like a hypocrite, because this stuff was not on the TV at my house this weekend. The idea that my kids would allow me half an hour to sit down and watch a program of my choosing while they're in the room is, well, laughable. (You're right, Robin, I need to put my children first more. Lol.)

    Posted by geocool March 15, 11 11:05 AM
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About the author

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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