From Colorado Floods to Navy Yard Shooting: How to Talk to Your Kids About Our Nation’s Disasters

4 years ago

It’s been a rough few days. First came the anniversary of 9/11. Then the Jersey boardwalk fire on 9/13. Over the weekend, the Colorado floods raged. And this morning, I awoke to the news about the Navy Yard shooting. Not that watching the news has ever really lifted my spirits, but the past few days have been pretty overwhelming and chalk-full of disaster and tragedy.


Image: © Jun Zhang/Xinhua/ZUMAPRESS.com

I live in Denver, so naturally all of the local news channels have been broadcasting nonstop about the floods. Last Thursday, when the flooding began, newscasters were quick to give out safety advice to all those possibly affected. The advice? “Keep your head above water and don’t drown.” Seriously? Of course there was a plethora of more useful advice, but this phrase really stuck in my head. Doesn’t this seem obvious? Try to keep your head above water so you can breathe and not die? Why don’t we focus on less obvious advice here. Like how to talk to your kids about what’s been happening around the U.S., and how to cope if you have been directly involved in one of the recent disasters. As a parent, it’s up to you to be prepared and effectively handle the feelings of urgency and fear when your child comes to you with questions.


Sept. 16, 2013 - Washington, DC, USA - DC Mayor Vincent Gray and DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier speak to the media after a gunman opened fire and killed at least 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., Monday, September 16, 2013. (Credit Image: © Andre Chung/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.com)

Here are a few tips on what to say and do:

Make every effort to control your own emotional reactions. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or can’t cry (you can let your kids see that you are sad, as this is appropriate to the situation). However, try to stay calm and grounded. If you are crying hysterically, wait until your own emotions are in check before talking to your child or teen. You are your child’s pillar of strength; your kiddo will look to you to figure out how to act in a scary situation. Thus, your child needs to see you are handling the situation calmly and effectively.

  1. Try to shield your children from watching the news. Visual images can cause unnecessary distress, and tragic scenes and photographs can become stuck in one’s head, which can lead to retraumatization. Younger kiddos will likely have difficulty understanding “why” and “how” natural disasters occur and don’t need to know the specific details. If your little kiddo does ask questions, keep your answers concrete and brief (e.g. “A flood happens when it rains very hard and very quickly. The water is too much for the earth to soak up, so it gathers like a pool on the roads and in people’s houses. Lots of people are working to help stop the flood.”) Older children can handle more detail and will likely ask more questions. Stick to the facts and be prepared to dispel myths or exaggerations.
  2. Be truthful. If you are a victim of disaster and your kiddo asks you if everything is going to be all right, don’t promise what you don’t know. You can reassure your children you’ll be with them every step of the way. For example, if you have been evacuated due to flooding and your child asks when (or if) you can return home, say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but what I do know is that we are going to be okay because we’re a family and we have each other, no matter where we’re living.”
  3. Encourage your child or teen to share and express his/her feelings and emotions with you. Listen. I mean really listen. Do not discount your child’s feelings (e.g. if your child says, “I feel scared” say, “Yes, I understand. What happened was very scary,” instead of, “There’s no reason to feel scared.”) Show your child or teen you can “sit with” a difficult emotion instead of avoiding it.
  4. Get emotional help and support. If you and your family are victims of a recent disaster, seek assistance. Harmony At Home can direct you to mental health support in your area, or contact the Red Cross for emotional, physical, and financial relief.

For more ideas and resources on how to talk to your children about disaster, check out:

http://www.fema.gov/pdf/library/children.pdf

http://www.redcross.org/find-help/disaster-recovery/recovering-emotionally

Dr. Luisa

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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