Talking to your children about the Japan earthquake

Given the powerful media images still emerging from yesterday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, there’s a good chance your children are asking plenty of questions and harboring some very real fears about whether or not the same thing could happen in your hometown.

Large scale natural disasters—and the following media coverage—can be very scary for children. To help children process information about them, Nadja Reilly, PhD, a psychologist in Children’s Hospital Boston’s department of Psychiatry, suggests parents turn off the TV and talk to their children in order to combat feelings of helplessness.

Even when they occur thousands of miles away, natural disasters can be very upsetting for children

“In general, you want to limit kids’ media exposure immediately after a disaster and set aside a quiet time to talk about it,” she says. “It can be traumatizing to see those images over and over again so a talk with a parent can be a good way to help children contextualize the extent of the disaster.” Limiting your own media use immediately after a disaster is a great way to model behavior and can cut down on the number of frightening images they’re indirectly exposed to as well.

For children under 8 years old, Reilly says it’s important to try to keep the conversation as simple as possible. Don’t go into details of the specific disaster, but rather focus on the safety of your family and the people closest to you. Assure them that everything possible is being done to keep your child safe. “Knowing that adults have a plan if this ever happened here gives kids a sense of stabilization and control,” she’s says. “It can do a lot to help them feel safer.”

For children 8-12, Reilly suggests parents talk in more detail about the disaster, paying special attention to the emotions and cognitive development of children that age. Typically, preadolescents are just beginning to understand empathy so it’s likely they’re going to have a lot of questions about the people living in the area affected by the disaster. Reilly says relief efforts by world governments and organizations like the Red Cross should be explained in detail. Children that age are often also intrigued by the mechanics of natural disasters, so explaining the science behind their causes can make them seem less random and frightening. “Knowing the science behind why these things happen can be a good way for older kids to feel in control of the situation,” Reilly says.

For adolescents, parents should ask what they know about the earthquake and explain the pieces that are missing or that they have wrong. Expect discussions of future implications, because even though adolescents have the ability to discuss events on a more sophisticated level, they’re still likely to feel vulnerable and may need emotional support and reassurance about their safety.

Regardless of their age, suggesting a way your children can help with relief efforts can be a very valuable way of empowering them during a scary time. Your children can run a clothing drive, raise funds for the Red Cross and write letters of support. If your family is religious, say a prayer for those affected by the disaster.

Reilly’s own son was 8 years-old during the devastating Haitian earthquake, and the two of them organized a collection and donation event that sent sleeping bags to the island. The entire process was a very positive experience for him and Reilly suggests parents help their children get involved with relief efforts whenever possible. “Anything kids can do to help alleviate the suffering caused by disasters is going to help make them feel less hopeless about the event,” she says. “It benefits the kids and people directly effected by the tragedy, so any activity of that nature should be encouraged by parents and schools.”

For more information on talking to your children about natural disasters, click here for information from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Here, Dr. Reilly is interviewed by WBZ-TV, Boston’s CBS affiliate about talking with children about the disaster in Japan.