Earthquake Response: How to help children cope when a disaster strikes

photo from: MSNBC: XINHUA via AFP- Getty Images

The tragic earthquake may have occurred in China, but it has rocked the whole world. Especially due to the very high death toll and the percentage of children lost in the disaster, hearts around the world are heavy.

Whenever a worldwide tragedy occurs, children look to their parents to make sense of it all. They may be wondering to themselves, will this happen to us? Is our family safe? Is our school safe? And the even more elusive, why did this happen?

It’s normal for children, just like parents and educators, to feel confused and scared. And even though many parents may shield their children from the news, information can easily seep out through friends and the media. It’s important for parents and educators to be available and ready.

Here are some things to remember:

(1) Stay calm: Children are looking to you to see how to react. By staying calm and in control, children will feel more safe and secure.

(2) Be available: Your children may need you to simply “be there” to listen or sit with them. Sometimes the most powerful parenting takes place when we say nothing at all.

(3) Reassure them: Make sure that the children know that the adults are taking care of the problem and working hard to take care of the people who are hurt or lost.

(4) Let them know that they’re safe: If you know that your children and your family members are indeed safe, be sure to let your children know. If this is not accurate information and safety is still in question, don’t lie. Reassure your children that the adults in charge are doing everything they can do to keep everyone as safe as possible.

(5) Comfort them: Allow them to cry, question, and show concern. Don’t shrug them off and tell them to “stop worrying.” This does not help. Tell them it’s OK to be scared or sad and that you’re available to them if they want to talk or just be together.

(6) Be observant: All children won’t express their concern, grief, or fear outwardly. You know your child. Sometimes your child will become very quiet or lose their appetite when something tragic happens. Some children will be more likely to have a reaction—perhaps due to past trauma, special needs, or emotional sensitivity. Be there for your child and know that even if your child is not showing outward signs of grief, s/he may still need your help.

(7) Keep your normal routine: As much as possible, keep your children’s schedule “as usual.” Children are comforted by predictability. However, if your child needs some time with you or isn’t sleeping, be flexible.

(8 ) Be honest: Tell your children the truth about the event, as is appropriate for their developmental level. Children don’t need to know all the gory details—this will only serve to make them more scared and confused. However, don’t pretend or lie. Stick to the facts and don’t exaggerate or speculate. Children are very perceptive and need to know that they can trust you to tell them the truth.

(9) Partner with your children’s school: Find out what resources are available to the children during the school day if they’re feeling scared or unsure. If a personal tragedy happened, make sure the guidance counselor and your child’s teacher knows about it. School can provide your children with comfort by being with friends but also with counseling, as needed.

(10) Limit the media onslaught: The best people to talk to your children about these tragic events are trusted family and educators. Do not allow the media to educate your children about these disasters. The media often talks about high death tolls and shows gruesome pictures that are not developmentally appropriate for children to see. If you want your children to know the facts, as appropriate, talk to them yourself.

Lastly, your children (and you) may feel better by taking action. We’ve been talking about compassion all month in our Powerful Words member schools and this would be a good time to put character into action. In times of tragedy, children may not be able to help directly but they can send letters, draw pictures, write poems, send food or supplies or donate some of their allowance to help relief efforts. This kind of action can be incredibly helpful to your children as well as those who are in need.

For more information on talking to your children go here.

Families in China and those who have lost anyone in this tragedy, we’re praying for you. You’re in our thoughts.


3 Responses

  1. […] they may have questions. Our Child Development Expert, Dr. Robyn Silverman has posted a guide on how to help children cope when disaster strikes. Click the link to go to her […]

  2. Question. Is it just the Ca. school system or have other kids ‘not even heard’ or discussed the earthquake OR the Myanmar tragedy? I did an informal poll for Shaping Youth the other day at the middle school for pickup time, and not one child had a clue about what was going on with the natural disasters, much less in the arena of world affairs…

    Perhaps I should’ve queried about ‘the Miley media mess’…would they have been up to snuff? If so…we’re in worse shape as a nation than I thought…

  3. […] in our lives. Worldwide tragedies like September 11th , Katrina, the Tsunami, and the recent Earthquake in China; personal losses like the death of a loved one, a divorce, or new knowledge of illnesses […]

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