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How to talk to your kids about natural disasters

Christina Joseph By Christina Joseph

Mom and daughter drawing

Karla Pope was watching footage of Hurricane Irma on her computer when her 7-year-old daughter, Ava, peeked over her shoulder and starting asking questions: “Why is that reporter out there if it’s dangerous?” “Will the hurricane hit us?”

Unsure of where the conversation would lead, the Brooklyn, New York, mom kept her answers simple and honest. She told her the reporter was doing his job and would be fine, that major hurricanes don’t often hit New York, and that they would be safe.

Talking to your kids about natural disasters isn’t always easy, but it’s important. Like adults, children can experience physical and mental stress from disasters, even if they’re not directly in harm’s way, according to the American Psychiatric Association. By starting the conversation early and providing information in an age-appropriate way, you can quiet kids’ fears and help them learn how to handle difficult situations. “Children look to their parents, caretakers and other adults for reassurance, support and guidance,” says Dr. Hyong Un, Chief Psychiatric Officer at Aetna, “and through this process build strong coping skills and strengthen their resilience for the future.”

Read on to learn four ways you can approach these difficult conversations with your child, whether you are tracking a disaster from afar or experiencing it firsthand.

Come from a place of calm.

Children, especially younger ones, take their cues from their parents and other loved ones. “They're going to look to you as models to see, ‘Is Mom or Dad upset? If they're upset, I'll be upset,’” says David Schonfeld, MD, FAAP, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.

Showing some distress or sadness is fine, he says, as long as you can also model effective coping strategies, like maintaining a normal routine and deep breathing during times of stress. Breathing exercises can also help your child — find out how here. If you’re feeling too overwhelmed to talk to your child, Schonfeld suggests asking your partner or another family member to have the initial conversation while you seek support for yourself. If you’re an Aetna member, you may be able to take advantage of the Resources for Living program, which provides 24/7 access to emotional support and daily life assistance at no additional cost.

Stick to the facts.

Start the conversation by finding out what your kids already know so you can correct any misunderstandings. Use age-appropriate language. For kids 5 and under, describe events in basic terms and explain how they affect your family. (“Wind knocked down electrical lines, and that’s why there’s no light. The electric crews are working to fix everything.”) You may need to repeat the information several times. School-aged kids often want more details and will ask more questions. Answer their questions honestly and simply, and then move on. (“Yes, people were hurt in the wildfires and lost their homes.”)

Whatever your child’s age, avoid oversharing and limit how much exposure they have to news stories and images about the disaster. “The repetition of such scenes can be disturbing and confusing,” says David Fassler, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of Advocacy and Public Policy at the Vermont Center for Children, Youth & Families.

Help them express their feelings.

Try to encourage your kids to talk to you about their feelings and concerns. Even something as simple as, “What can I do to help you feel better?” can be effective. Older children and teens may say they are fine and don’t want to discuss their feelings. Don’t force the issue, but let them know you are here to talk when they’re ready.

Of course, some children — especially very young ones — may not know how to talk about their feelings and fears. Giving them an outlet like the ones below can help ease anxiety:

  • Draw a picture. If their favorite park is closed because of a disaster, ask your child to draw a picture of what they like to do there. If your child is feeling anxious, have them draw a picture of what scares them — it can clue you in on what’s really upsetting them.
  • Help prepare the family’s go-bag or emergency kit. Find a way to include your child in the preparations — it can help calm their fears and make them feel safer and more in control. When wildfires blazed through their state, Amy Ball of Sebastopol, California, asked her 6-year-old daughter, Claire, to assemble the cat’s food and take pictures of her toys in case they needed to evacuate. “It gave her something to do while my husband was packing the car and took a little bit of the fear away,” she says.
  • Spend time with loved one. Physical closeness can help kids feel safer, so you may want to suggest activities that give you both more quality time, like cuddling in bed to read a favorite book, making a special meal together or playing a game as a family.
  • Find ways to help. Whether it’s baking cookies to thank the local firehouse or gathering supplies to send to hurricane victims, giving back can help your children feel like they’re contributing in their own way.

Follow up.

Some children may seem fine and not want to talk right away, but may open up later, so check in with them regularly to see how they’re processing the news. If you notice changes in your child’s behavior, such as moodiness, withdrawal, excessive crying, a change in sleep patterns, clinginess, obsession over the disaster or anything out of the ordinary, consider talking with your pediatrician or a counselor. For more on the signs of emotional suffering and to find available resources in your area, visit the Campaign to Change Direction. Aetna is a founding member of the campaign, which encourages all Americans to pay attention to their emotional well-being.

Ultimately, children want to know you’re there to answer their questions honestly, to listen to their feelings, and to offer reassurance and support. “I think that really plain talk just helps them understand better,” says Amy. “Talk about the positive things that are happening. They will pick that up from you and feel better about the situation.”

About the author

Christina Joseph is a veteran editor and writer from New Jersey who still loves to read the old-fashioned newspaper. She’s raising two fruit-and-veggie loving daughters to balance all the treats Grandma sends their way. Christina’s health goal is to resume her workout routine after being sidelined by injuries.