Your six year old has just seen video of real children being washed out to sea. Your teen sits transfixed watching images of people clinging to trees, mothers wailing as they discover dead children in an endless line of unclaimed bodies, and babies crying hysterically for their mothers. At the dinner table your fifth grader asks, "Can anything like that happen to us, Dad?"
Yes, you are filled with empathy for the survivors who have lost loved ones, homes and jobs. Yes, you are extremely grateful that your children are safe in your comfortable home as the horrific images continue to flow onto your television screen. And yes, you can use this incredibly tragic situation to help your children learn lessons of love, compassion and of the indestructible nature of the human spirit.
Once children have seen the images of tragedy and suffering it is necessary to debrief it with them. The sooner the better. By debriefing, we mean answering their questions, providing information, asking questions and reflecting their feelings.
Provide the scientific information for which they are asking
Tell your children the effects of the natural disaster
The goal here is to be brief, accurate and provide them with the specific information for which they are looking. If you fail to give them information, if you fail to debrief, children's brains will fill in the blanks. Better to fill in those gaps yourself with factual knowledge than to have your children fill them with their imaginations.
Concentrate on feelings
When you sense they are feeling empathy, sadness or pain, say so
When strong emotion is shown on TV, honor it by talking about it
When you communicate your feelings and honor the feelings of your children for people around the world, you teach them important lessons about the human condition. You help them appreciate how we are all more alike than different. You help them see that we are all connected, no matter how distant we seem. You help them learn we are all one.
As you go through this debriefing process, encourage your children to look for the helpers. Helpers always come. There are always people who step forth to help. In the case of a major tragedy there will be many helpers, playing out a variety of roles. Point them out to your children.
When small problems occur in their own lives they will have learned to look for the helpers. There are helpers at school, on the playground, in the mall, and on the highway when our car breaks down. Learn to look for helpers and they will be more likely to show up when you need them.
Discuss with your children how you as a family can be helpers during this tragedy
Our deepest sympathies and heartfelt prayers go out to the families directly affected by the most recent tsunami. The scope and depth of the pain and heartache of catastrophic tragedies like this are not measurable. Yet, those same horrific events can be used for good if we help our children learn about feelings, looking for the helpers, appreciating the connectedness of all human beings, and the beauty of one heart reaching out to another across the continents. We can help them learn that around the world is a long way away and still very much a part of our neighborhood.
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