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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

How to Discuss Disasters with Your Children

These days the news on TV, radio, and social media seems to be filled with stories of violence or natural disasters, leading parents to wonder how to help their children cope. Whether a child has been personally affected or just heard of a disaster, parents need to be ready to talk with them about the events. But how?

First, take care of yourself. Breathe. Your own fear or anxiety about the disaster can affect your child’s response. While it can be okay to express concern or grief, try to follow up with a discussion of ways to cope with these emotions. Sticking to family routines, schedules, regular meals, and exercise can be very helpful for you and your child.

Next, begin a discussion with your child about the event. Even young children will hear about major news events – often from other children. It’s best if they get this information from you.

  • Ask your child what they’ve heard and what they’re worried about. Starting off with a question helps you know what they understand and where to start your discussion. Have they heard an accurate story, or have they been misled by rumors? What are they most scared by?
  • Tell them what occurred. You know your child best. Say what’s appropriate for their age and temperament. Older kids will benefit from more detailed information than younger children. More anxious children may benefit from less detail. Try to reassure them by saying, “This is concerning news and it’s okay to be scared or worried, you’re not alone. I’m here for you.” Explain that police, firefighters, and doctors are working hard to keep us all safe. If relevant, you can explain that the events happened far away from your home and that these kinds of events are rare.
  • Listen to their concerns and answer their questions to help kids understand the events. Some children may not want to talk about the events, which can be normal. Just remind them you’re always available for questions or reassurance when they feel comfortable. Also remind them of other grown-ups they can talk with – like teachers, counselors, grandparents.
  • Limit TV and social media. Turn off TVs, computers, and handheld devices like phones and tablets as much as possible. If you’re not able to completely shelter your young children from media, discuss what they saw. Seeing images of the events over and over can be especially upsetting to children and puts them at an increased risk of emotional trauma. Also, limit adult conversations about the event. Children may overhear adults talking and either understand more than we give them credit for, or jump to even scarier conclusions.
  • Reassure children. Very young children (3 or younger) can simply be told you’ll keep them safe. Older kids will need you to be more honest and detailed. Focus on what’s being done to keep them safe. Remind children that violent events and natural disasters are part of life, but rare. Turn their focus towards things they enjoy or want to do in the future. Even in dire situations, discussing topics such as gratitude and hope are shown to help children. So spend time together each night talking about what you are grateful for!
  • Plan with your family how you would respond in a disaster that strikes close to home. Make sure your kids know the plans.
  • Volunteer with your children to help those affected by recent events. During tragedies children can feel helpless. Looking for ways to volunteer time, donate items or money to victims can help your own child feel better by helping others.

When to reach out to your pediatrician or mental health professional

Disasters can leave children feeling frightened, confused, and insecure. Contact us if you notice any of these symptoms (especially if they last for more than a few weeks).

Concerning symptoms:

  • Seeming depressed, withdrawn, angry, or irritable.
  • Sleeping problems (not being able to fall or stay asleep, having nightmares, or sleeping too much).
  • Eating less or more than usual.
  • Withdrawing from or avoiding friends, family and normal activities.
  • Acting out the event over and over in their play. Constantly talking about the disaster.
  • Bed-wetting, bathroom accidents, or other regressive behavior.
  • Acting aggressively.
  • Being afraid of fire, storms, wind, and sudden loud noises.
  • Having more trouble separating from parents, clinging, not being willing to let you out of their sight, fear that you will not return.
  • Experiencing other symptoms that affect their ability to function like recurrent headaches or stomachaches.

Sadly, we’ll continue to have to face natural disasters and violence and the news that follows them. Most children are resilient and able to cope with the stress and trauma if supported and guided through the experience. Our children’s responses and ability to cope depends on how we as parents, caregivers, and teachers respond. Being willing to start a conversation early and keep it going will help them thrive despite tragedies around them.

Resources for Parents

American Academy of Pediatrics
Responding to Children’s Emotional Needs During Times of Crisis

American Red Cross
Disaster Safety for Children: Learn how to reduce and manage your child’s fears before, during and after a disaster or emergency.

National Institute of Mental Health
Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do