(Photo credit: CNN.com)

Oh my God, Japan. What else can I say? The images on television and the internet of the earthquake and its aftermath are almost apocalyptic. Highways opened. Walls of water and debris—“debris” meaning whole cars, houses and anything else in the water’s path—rushed six miles inland to wipe out whatever it found, leaving bodies and fires behind. Nuclear cooling towers leaked radiation. And it’s not over.

As humans, we say how horrified we are. We offer compassion, assistance, prayers, because for most of us, it’s the least, or maybe the most we can do from afar.

As parents, though, we have to do a bit more. We have to be ready to explain what’s going on to our kids, and this is no easy task.

Following the earthquake in Haiti a little over a year ago, I wrote a post addressing the topic of how to talk to your kids about that natural disaster. I reprint most of it below in the hope that it can be helpful now:

Mommy, Where’s Haiti?

These can be tough moments in parenting.

As we think of the dead, wounded and homeless in Haiti, search for ways to help and give thanks for our own good fortunes, many of us who are parents of young children will face the additional challenge of questions about Tuesday’s devastating earthquake.

This challenge can arise whenever there is a natural or manmade disaster. Even if you try to keep your kids from watching the TV or listening to the radio, even if you bury the newspaper at the bottom of the recycling bin, kids may hear about disasters at school, friends’ houses or any one of the numerous places a kid goes in the course of his week.

This is the world in which they are growing up, and sooner or later, they’re going to learn about it.

Kids react to these things differently. One four-year-old little boy may see a few glimpses of the news before it is switched off and wake up in the middle of the night with nightmares about a building crashing down on top of him. A nine-year-old girl may wonder what it would be like to be a nine-year-old girl in the affected area. Little kids may focus on the immediate and the personal: Can this happen here, to me? Older children may form more complex reactions and want to know about the causes of earthquakes, how many people died and do we know anyone with friends or family in Haiti?

Parents’ reactions need to be tailored not just to their own preferences regarding how much news their kids should be exposed to, but to their children’s ages and personalities, too. At the bottom of this post, I’ve listed just a few of the many resources available online where you can look for information about kids’ reactions to disasters and trauma and how you might talk to your kids about the earthquake in Haiti. If your child’s behavior changes and it seems serious, you can always contact a counselor or your pediatrician.

I’ve learned in my house that my two kids need different approaches to events like this. “Jack” first approached me with tough questions about life when he was four years old: What happened on 9/11? How did the bad men kill those people? How exactly does a baby get made? What is the nature of infinity? (I’m paraphrasing that last one, but he did force me to pursue that concept for about six months.)

With Jack, I take an honest, one-or-two-drops-at-a-time approach to disasters. Now that he’s eight, I allow him to watch small portions of news coverage on these stories in my or his father’s presence. He’s been able to read for years, so it makes more sense to me to guide him through some of the darker aspects of life in small pieces than to try to hide everything from him. There are still topics I haven’t introduced because I don’t think he’s old enough, but when he comes to me with a question, I answer it honestly.

And that last bit is the key with Jack. In my opinion, tough, rational questions from a child deserve honest answers. He sometimes gets a dose of my values with those answers, sometimes he gets just facts, but I tell him the truth. I usually limit what I tell him to the scope of his question, maybe a tiny bit more, then sit back and wait to see if there are follow ups. If he wants to know more about something than I am equipped to give him, we explore the question together in a book or online. And if I think he’s getting scared, I offer reassurances and we stop. But Jack rarely gets scared.

Four-and-a-half year old “Emmie” requires an entirely different approach. This is a child who can be frightened if the cat she’s known all her life walks too close to her, if the music of a ballet or cartoon hits deep octaves or even if Dora the Explorer is having a bad day. I haven’t even brought her inside a movie theater yet because I think the vastness, blackness and loudness of the place would cause her to wet her pants. Emmie also gets honest answers from me, but I tell her the bare minimum, try not to let her see anything scary on television and distract her as quickly as possible if she notices something. Emmie’s sense of the divides between reality and fantasy, the possible and the impossible is much less developed than Jack’s was at the same age. With Emmie, it’s all about avoidance. She’s just not ready for the world yet.

And that’s perhaps the most important lesson to take away on helping our kids understand and cope with disasters like the earthquake in Haiti. Utilize the resources below and many others, but don’t forget to know and watch your kid, because each child is different. And don’t be afraid to ask for help if you see something in him or her you don’t understand. After all, we adults often have a tough time understanding the world around us; it’s a no-brainer that sometimes we might need a little help making sense out of it for our kids.

A few resources that may be helpful (Please note that while some of these resources are intended primarily for children directly affected by disaster, some children may experience trauma by virtue of exposure to images, etc., and the behavioral descriptions and techniques described here may be useful in those types of cases, too.)

Discussing the Haiti Disaster with Your Children (Momlogic)
Mental Health America Fact Sheet: Helping Children Handle Disaster-related Anxiety
Tips for Talking to Children After a Disaster (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

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