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
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.
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