Talking to Children About Disasters
Children can cope more effectively with a disaster when they feel they understand what is happening and what they can do to help protect themselves, family, and friends. Provide basic information to help them understand, without providing unnecessary details that may only alarm them.
For very young children, provide concrete explanations of what happened and how it will affect them (eg, a tree branch fell on electrical wires and that is why the lights don’t work). Let children know there are many people who are working to help them and their community to recover after a disaster (such as repair crews for the electric company, or firefighters, police, paramedics, or other emergency personnel). Share with them all of the steps that are being taken to keep them safe; children will often worry that a disaster will occur again.
Older children will likely want, and benefit from, additional information about the disaster and recovery efforts. No matter what age, start by asking children what they already know and what questions they have and use that as a guide for the conversation. Limit media coverage of the disaster—if children are going to watch media coverage, consider taping it (to allow adults to preview) and watch along with them to answer questions and help them process the information. While children may seek and benefit from basic information about what happened so that they can understand what is happening in their world, they (and adults) don’t benefit from graphic details or exposure to disturbing images or sounds. In the aftermath of a crisis is a good time to disconnect from all media and sit down together and talk as a family.
Be sure to ask children what questions or concerns they have. Often they have fears based on limited information or because they misunderstood what they were told. Reassure children when able to do so, but if their fears are realistic, don’t give false reassurance. Instead, help them learn how to cope with these feelings.
Help Children Cope
After a disaster or crisis, children benefit from adults who can help them learn how to cope effectively. Although it is not useful for adults to appear overwhelmed by the event, it is helpful to share some of their feelings and what they are doing to deal with those feelings. Children can’t be expected to cope with troubling feelings if no one models effective coping. Allow children to “own” their feelings. Let your child know that it is all right to be upset about something bad that happened. Use the conversation to take the opportunity to talk about other troubling feelings your child may have. A child who feels afraid is afraid, even if adults think the reason for the fear is unnecessary. If you feel overwhelmed and/or hopeless, look for some support from other adults before reaching out to your child.
Don’t feel obligated to give a reason for what happened. Although adults often feel the need to provide a reason for why someone committed such a crime, many times they don’t know. It is okay to tell your child that you don’t know why at this time such a crime was committed.
Children are not only trying to deal with the disaster, but with everything else that follows. They may have to relocate, at least temporarily, and could be separated from friends or unable to attend the same school. Parents may have less income and the change in finances may impact their ability to participate in activities they enjoyed or travel to visit family out of town. Allow children to express their regrets over these “secondary losses” (without accusing them of being selfish) and help them figure out ways to minimize the impact or find alternatives.
Children, just like adults, often feel helpless after a disaster. Help them figure out what they can do—that is meaningful to them—to help others in their community impacted by the disaster. For more information, see Coping and Adjustment.
Support Grieving Children
Children who have experienced the death of a family member or friend need to understand and grieve a personal loss, above and beyond adjusting to the disaster itself. Access more information on how to support grieving children.
Talking to Children about the Economy
The current economic situation is impacting adults throughout the United States and abroad. The effect that it may have on children and adolescents may be less direct—they may be worried about changes they see in their parents’ mood or behavior because their parents are concerned about finances—but it is still something that parents and pediatricians should address. Talking to children about the economy, and the impact it is having on their family, can help them develop strategies for coping with the current financial situation and their day-to-day life.
Talking to Children in the Aftermath
The AAP has assembled resources for pediatricians, parents, and teachers to help children cope with the aftermath of community or school shootings. If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, contact his or her pediatrician, other primary care provider, or a qualified mental health care specialist.