Helping children to make sense of natural disasters

11 September 2018

Helping children to make sense of natural disasters

by Michael Grose

As adults we all want our children to live carefree lives and keep them from the pain and even horror of tragedies such as natural disasters. In reality we can’t do this.

Natural disasters wreak incredible havoc on so many people’s lives and will no doubt leave an indelible imprint on our collective psyches. Graphic images have been brought into our living rooms via the media, and will continue to do so in the future.

As adults we all want our children to live carefree lives and keep them from the pain and even horror of tragedies such as natural disasters. In reality we can’t do this.

So what is a parent, teacher, or other caring adult to do when the natural disasters fill the airwaves and the consciousness of society? Here are some ideas:

Reassure children that they are safe

The consistency of the images can be frightening for young children who don’t understand the notion of distance and have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fiction. Let them know that while this event is indeed happening it may not affect them directly.

Be available

Let kids know that it is okay to talk about the unpleasant events. Listen to what they think and feel. By listening, you can find out if they have misunderstandings, and you can learn more about the support that they need. You do not need to explain more than they are ready to hear, but be willing to answer their questions.

Help children process what they see and hear, particularly through television

Children are good observers but can be poor interpreters of events that are out of their level of understanding.

Support children’s concerns for others

Children may have genuine concerns for the suffering that will occur and they may need an outlet for those concerns. It is heartwarming to see this empathy in children for the concerns of others.

Let them explore feelings beyond fear

Many children may feel sad or even angry with these events so let them express the full range of emotions. They may feel sadder for the loss of wildlife, than for loss of human life, which is impersonal for them.

Help children and young people find a legitimate course of action if they wish

Action is a great antidote to stress and anxiety so finding simple ways to help, including undertaking activities in solidarity or donating some pocket money can assist kids to cope and teaches them to contribute.

Avoid keeping the television on all the time

The visual nature of the media means that images are repeated over and over, which can be both distressing to some and desensitizing to others.

Be aware of your own actions

Children will take their cues from you and if they see you focusing on it in an unhealthy way then they will focus on it too. Let them know that it is happening but that it should not dominate their lives.

Take action yourself

Children who know their parents, teachers, or other significant caregivers are working to make a difference feel hope. They feel safer and more positive about the future. So do something. It will make you feel more hopeful, too. And hope is one of the most valuable gifts we can give children and ourselves.

Children’s worlds can be affected in ways that we can’t even conceive of so adults need to be both sensitive to children’s needs and mindful of what they say and how they act in front of children.

In difficult times, it is worth remembering what adults and children need most are each other.

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Michael Grose

Michael Grose, founder of Parenting Ideas, is one of Australia’s leading parenting educators. He’s the author of 10 books for parents including Thriving! and the best-selling Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It, and his latest release Spoonfed Generation: How to raise independent children.