How to Talk to Children about a Natural Disaster

Whether someone lives in the path of a natural disaster or is not personally impacted by it’s destruction, it is safe to say that a nation as a whole is affected by natural disasters. This broad awareness extends to children who are also impacted in some way by a natural disaster, even if not directly impacted by loss. Children could be exposed to the events of a natural disaster through the media, their peers, or through overhearing conversations between adults. This could cause children to have feelings of fear or anxiety. Children are unique in that their language is largely through play so children, especially under the age of 12, often do not have the verbal ability to communicate feelings to others. Since it might not always be apparent if a child is facing emotional adversity after a stressful event, it is a good idea to reassure them of their safety and security regardless of their response to a natural disaster. Because children communicate their feelings and thoughts differently than adults, talking to them about a natural disaster could be intimidating. Here are some ideas to consider when it comes to having this conversation.

Children feel safe when they know they are loved and cared for.

To children, security is found in their caregivers. Even in the midst of tragedy, they can feel safe and secure when they know they are cared for and loved by their guardians. They have the ability to be more resilient when the appropriate care is given to them. Knowing the importance of expressing and showing care and love for children is foundational in providing them with the security they need to develop emotionally and socially.

Pay attention and listen to children.

Children learn how to deal with stress in their childhood years. Therefore, it is important that caregivers teach children how to express their emotions and thoughts in a healthy way. Listen to children when they speak so that they know they are heard and that their words are important. Though children do not have the same verbal reasoning as adults, they can reveal a lot through what they say. Listening and responding to children is a vital way to intercede in any of their thought processes that may be unhealthy or incorrect.

Example:  A child who has heard of a friend’s grandparent dying may worry that they will also suddenly lose their grandparent. They may begin to ask questions about their grandparents. This would be the time to affirm to you child that he is sage and loved and that no matter what happens, he will be able to get through it.

Implement a hopeful mindset.

Tragedy is an opportunity for children to see that good can come from a bad situation and to encourage empathy. Talk to them about real-life situations. Appropriately remind a child of something unfortunate that has happened, such as the loss of a pet or a friend that moved away. Then, affirm to them that even though they felt sad, everything was okay. This also teaches children that it is okay to talk about tough situations. You can encourage empathy in children by teaching them ways to help others. Here are some ideas:

  • Allow the child to write a letter to a friend that is facing a tragedy or knows someone impacted by a natural disaster.
  • Donate items and ask the child to help. Make sure to do your homework on where to donate and the most beneficial means of donating, but this is one way to teach children to give in order to help someone else. Some trustworthy organizations are the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse.

Even though it can be difficult to interpret how a child is responding to tragedy, there are some signs to look out for:

  • Seeking more attention than normal
  • Feeling guilty
  • Avoiding chores and responsibilities such as homework
  • Wanting to stay home from school
  • Acting younger than their age

Parents and primary caregivers of children know their children more than anyone else. If your child seems to experience an overwhelming amount of stress and their behaviors are abnormal, additional help should be considered to ensure the developmental health of the child. In addition to your child’s pediatrician, here are some resources for seeking help:

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Kottman, T. (2011). Play therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association. ISBN: 978-1-55620-305-3

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event. (HHS Publication No. (SMA) 12-4732).

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