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Talking to Your Kids About the Disaster in Japan

by on Mar.13, 2011, under Communication, Safety, Sensitive Topics

     As we all try to grasp the horror of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, you might be confronted by questions from your child.  Children of different ages will require different responses from you.  For all children, especially those six years and younger, I urge you to refer to the Chapter 11 in my book, Just Tell Me What To Say, which addresses how we answer young children’s questions about natural disasters.  For older children, see below.

     The single most important message for you calmly and confidently to communicate to your children when it comes to disasters and widespread safety precautions is: 

“You are safe.  I know how to keep you and our whole family safe. That is my job. We are all safe now, and we will continue to be safe.”

 Below is an abbreviated excerpt from my book.

  •  Protect your children under the age of seven from the media.  Young children, children seven years and younger, should not be intentionally exposed to the news, period. Keep your children safe.  Don’t listen to news radio during morning carpool. Don’t read the newspaper at the breakfast table in the morning. Turn off the little television in the kitchen that is background to your meal preparation.  While you think your child isn’t watching and listening, she is absorbing it, and she certainly is observing your reactions.
  • Take care of your own feelings first. On an airplane we are taught the oxygen mask practice. First put on your own mask, and then put the mask on your child.  The same holds true with your feelings. As a parent, your reactions and way of being with your child is based on your own fear and anxiety; it is not necessarily based on logic or reality.   Leaking your own feelings adds to the child’s concern and anxiety.
  • Don’t whisper! There are many times when we don’t want our children to hear what we are saying.  The moment you whisper about the catastrophic event, your child’s ears perk right up. Now she is listening, and now she knows that there is something going on that she isn’t supposed to know about.
  • It’s okay not to talk about it.  If your child is not directly affected the disaster that has happened, it is well within possible that she has escaped without unwanted exposure. There is no reason to raise the subject with a child who is six years old or younger. How lucky she is to be unburdened by these issues, events, and resulting worries. The young child needs to know that the world is a safe place. Hearing about disasters and terrorism only eats away at her feelings of safety.
  • Don’t avoid questions.  If your child has been exposed to a scary event, hopefully she will come to you with her questions.  Not answering her questions, avoiding the discussion, will be more damaging than the discussion. The lack of discussion will leave your child alone with her fears and anxieties. In addition, the child will be left feeling that the subject is taboo.
  • Find out what the child knows.  If your child comes to you with a question, your first job is to figure out what he already knows.

           “I am so glad that you are asking me because I want to talk with you about that. Tell me, where did you hear about the tsunami?

            Hopefully, because of the way in which you calmly welcomed her question, your child will say, “Amanda told me that a lot of people drowned in a giant wave.”    

           And you can continue based on what she knows and what you think she is really asking. But take note, most often the young child is not asking for actual details;  she is asking if she is safe. 

  • Keep in mind that your child’s primary need is know that she is safe. It is every parent’s tendency to talk too much and to give too much information. What your young child wants to know and needs to hear is that she is safe, her family is safe, and that you know how and will take care of the family.
  • Listen for the question beneath the question. Often a young child will ask a question, but she is not looking for that answer. Something else is brewing underneath those words. Sometimes you may have to probe a little more deeply,

             “Are you wondering if the tsunami is near to our house?”

              And sometimes you will just take a stab at what you think the child is really asking,

             “I think you are worried that a tsunami is going to happen to us and we will not be safe.”

               Then you speak to that underlying question or worry.

              “The tidal wave in the ocean happened far far away in a whole different side of the world. We are just fine here in California; we are all safe.”

  • Don’t downplay your child’s feelings.  Resist the urge to say   “Don’t worry” or “Don’t be sad” to your child. Truth be told, saying “Don’t worry” doesn’t really work, does it?  You still worry! So will your child. Your child’s feelings are real, even if you think they are unfounded or needless. Your child needs to have her feelings validated and to be reassured. You don’t need to fix those feelings, but you do need to respect them. She needs you to hear her, to receive and be a container for her feelings.

            “I know that you are really worried about the tsunami you have heard about.  That happened far far away from here, from where we are.

           At the same time, it is important not to down play the seriousness of the situation. It usually is serious, very serious. Saying, “Don’t cry. Everything will be okay” is not only another way of denying the child her feelings, but it is also somewhat crazy-making. It most effective to be honest, to acknowledge and to reassure the child    at the same time. 

  •  Share your own feelings to the appropriate degree. Sharing your feelings can validate your child’s feelings and let her know that she is not alone with them. You must also show and communicate that you are in control of your emotions and not overwhelmed by them.  

             “You are so sad that those people’s houses were wrecked by the earthquake. I am really sad about that, too. It was a terrible accident.”

  • Be brief and try to use simple language and concepts that your child can understand. When speaking with your four year old you will use a different language than that you would use with your twelve year old.  The young child needs simple explanations with very few words. She should not be overloaded with information and words.
  • Be honest and give accurate information…but only as needed and only the bare essentials, a bit at a time. Your child may ask you a question, wanting to verify what she has heard. Just answer the question, nothing more. “Yes, some people were killed when the building collapsed.  
  • Be prepared for several conversations.  Children often ask the same question over and over again. That repetition may be her attempt to wrap her arms around your answer or it may represent a need for reassurance. As your child processes the information she has learned or as she hears new information, she will have new thoughts and questions.
  • What if? questions.   What if? questions are tricky. Usually the child is looking for reassurance that you will keep her safe no matter what.  There are those children who will keep after you, “But what if the plane does crash? But what if the fire does come to our house? But what if there is a tsunami and the wave comes and we get flooded? And what if and what if and what if…”  There are those kinds of children. If you have one, you sure do know it!  These kinds of questions can be answered in with straight forward and clearly delivered information.

            “There will be no flood at our house. We are completely safe here, and I will keep it that way.”

 For older children, I remind you:

  •  All children., even older ones, need to feel that they are safe. You, the adult, will do everything you can to make sure of that. It is your job.
  • Answer only the questions your child asks.  In so doing you will not add your anxiety or issues of which they may not have thought.
  • Do not avoid the older child’s what if question. As the older child is capable of thinking beyond what has happened in Japan, ask him to answer his question first. His answer will let you know the nature of his fear.
  • Address his fears realisticallyand without denial. The child needs to know that while his fears are real, it is highly unlikely that they will come to fruition. Explain further that all children and some grownups have fears but seldom do they become reality.
  • Do something to help.  Inertia contributes to a feeling of helplessness. Activity always contributes to a sense of control.  Sending clothing, giving money, having a lemonade stand to raise money, etc…not help the child to feel less helpless but models exactly what all people should do for others in need.

 While we know that Japan was as prepared as a country could be and the earthquake and tsunami still had unimaginable effects, take this time to make sure your earthquake supplies are is just one of the many sites that can help you with your preparedness.

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6 Comments for this entry

  • kelly

    Thank you for this!! Such helpful advice.

  • Betsy Brown Braun

    I am so glad to be helpful to parents during such a stress producing event. Thanks for saying so!

  • xashee

    i thought i would check out this post when i saw Lisa Breckingridge (from Good Day LA, morning show) tweet about how good an article this was. is a real shame that so many don’t leave a comment. well, i say well done and thank you for sharing and MY youngest is 26!!

  • Betsy Brown Braun

    You are right that it is a shame, Xashee, but that YOU for doing so! My goal, however, is to get the information and the help out there! BBB

  • Betsy

    Hi Betsy — I didn’t even realize you had done a recap of your advice about disasters from Just Tell Me What to Say, but I blogged just yesterday about turning to your book for advice when I suspected my 5-year-old might be having difficulty getting to sleep lately because she saw some of the Japan earthquake and tsunami footage. I don’t know if I can put a link on here, but if you google Momsense Betsy Bethel it should come up. Thanks for your continued help for us sometimes-clueless parents!

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