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.

8 thoughts on “Talking to your children about the Japan earthquake

  1. The song “TALK TO ME” by GRAMMY winners Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer is a lovely reminder of keeping kids & parents talking to each other on challenging topics.

  2. I believe we should shield our children from the graphic images on disasters. I protect myself! Being informed and feeling compassion for the people who are affected is one thing, but viewing the pictures over and over is not healthy for me. If my 10 yr. old son asks questions I answer them honestly, but with as little graphic information as possible and then finish with words of compassion for those whose lives are affected and gratitude for something good in our life. I was personally traumatized as youngster under 10 when i saw images in Life magazine of war victims and a KLM plane crash. ~wendy

  3. Oh thank you. I was just expressing the same ideas to my husband this morning. This not only supports my views but gives us some concrete ideas on how to handle the discussion.

  4. My 10 year old son and I have watched the scenes from Japan. He said he would be so scared to live through an earthquake, a tsunami, a nuclear meltdown, and now a volcano becoming active. He knows our neighbors here would help each other and share food and blankets. For the first time he realized that people in foreign countries do the same things there that they do here when disaster strikes. It was a chance to point out that no matter what language you speak, how you dress or where you live, we are all the same when disaster strikes. “Scared, hurt, and able to help each other out.”

    1. IMO, children should learn about many aspects of world history, the good, the bad, and the ugly. But in developmentally and pedagogically appropriate ways. Would I expect my 17 year old to be able to learn about and see pictures of the holocaust? Yes. And I would expect that 17 year old to have an emotional reaction to such horror that would need to be processed in a healthy way. So we would have conversations about it. Would I expect my 7 year old to learn about and see pictures of the holocaust? No way. That’s the difference between past events taught deliberately in school to kids of chosen ages and maturity levels and current events that kids of all ages hear about and see pictures of. This post is about helping parents help kids who have seen and heard about current events that they have no way of understanding and can only find deeply frightening. It is not suggesting that we prevent children from learning about world complexities in age appropriate ways.

  5. As a mother, I understand that our children care about two things:
    1. Can mommy and daddy take care of me?
    2. Am I safe?
    According to psychologist Dr. Robert Pressman, “Images seen on TV are sometimes impossible to remove from your child’s mind – they can last a lifetime. Words said by the parent can be softened and carefully chosen so their child can understand, but not feel too anxious.”

    For more information:

  6. i believe it would be better to make it easy for them through science slide to make them aware of how it happend in side the earth and the heat, well picture will have the children adubt the idea rather reject it. bear in mind that if u do not tell them they will have from their friends whom they may not have it in a correct way. exactly what happend in china. some time we have to attribute it to certain idea according to what the kids believe in, knowing that through asking them different question and try to analyes what behind thier thinking. god bless us all. we have to live with harmony with the earth

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