Herald Journal Columns
Sept. 19, 2005, Herald Journal

Helping kids deal with natural disaster events


The news is filled with information about Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it has brought to the southern United States, and how people are joining together to help bring some type of relief and help to the victims.

Our children are some of the people that are giving what they can, as well. On television the other night, reporters told of a little boy that donated his piggybank savings to help Hurricane Katrina victims. My children’s elementary school is hosting a drive to support the Red Cross efforts to help out victims by asking families of students for cash donations.

Experts say that turning our energy and focus to helping others in this time of need is positive for our children (and for all of us), rather than just focusing on the devastation and destruction that can truly scare children, especially the younger ones.

So, how do we respond and talk with our children about Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, especially when television and other media are repeatedly depicting many graphic scenes of devastation and desperation?

A psychologist/psychiatrist was on the Today show recently talking about just that topic – how to help kids cope in times of natural disasters. The professional referred people to the website www.aboutourkids.org for more information on the subject, so here’s what these resources had to say. The article on the website was written by Anita Gurian, Ph.D.

• We, as adults, should reassure our children that efforts are being made to insure their safety.

• Keep the communication lines open with our children, and more than one talk or discussion may be necessary as events unfold. Young children, especially, don’t need all the details, but honesty is critical.

• Wait for our child’s questions or for an opportune time to bring up the topic, and be should be aware of our own reactions – anger, shock, dismay. Our reactions are contagious. Children are apt to reflect our attitudes.

• We should consider our children’s individual personality styles and temperaments. Some children, preoccupied with their own lives, may not pay much attention to the events. Some children are naturally more prone to be fearful, and news showing graphic scenes of the catastrophes may only heighten a child’s anxiety. Children can get overloaded and become numb with the repetition of the reports.

• We should adjust our responses to the age of the child, as well. Children can personalize the news and interpret events in relation to their own lives.

Young children may confuse facts with their fantasies and fears. They may not realize the same images are shown many times and may think that the disasters are happening over and over again.

School-age children may equate scenes from a scary move with some news coverage and may magnify the personal effect of news events.

Teens, on the other hand, may consider issues of ethics and may feel a need to take action and want to lend a helping hand in some way.

So, although it is tempting to protect our children from unpleasant realities, ignoring the news, especially for school-age children, is probably not an option. They are likely to see the images or events in the media or hear about them from others, and letting children keep scared feelings to themselves can be more damaging than frank discussions.

Research has shown that watching media coverage, especially repeated viewing, can create stress for children, even when they are not directly exposed to the disaster, so television viewing for young children should be limited. We, as parents, should watch with our children so we can answer questions and be available to share information. We are to assure our children that chances of a similar disaster occurring in their area are very unlikely or remote.

• To help our children deal with feelings of worry and shock, it is important that established routines continue. If you attend church with your children, it is important to keep that routine, the doctor emphasized. And when appropriate, we can talk about things children might do, such as participating in community relief organizations.

• To help our children feel safe, and to provide more information and more reassurance for children who need it, we can talk about the advances made to anticipate, avert, and deal with natural disasters. It is also appropriate to talk about agencies such as the Red Cross, and how they help out.

It was also emphasized that some children may exhibit changes in behavior because of stress, such as changes in sleep, regressive behavior, or excessive clinginess. We should accept and deal with these behaviors for a short while, but if these behaviors persist for more than two weeks, we should have our child seen by a pediatrician or other health care worker.

Garden wisdom

Even though summer gardening is coming to an end, and it’s nearing harvest time for other crops, I recently read this quote and thought it appropriate and eloquent (unfortunately, I don’t know who to attribute it to; nonetheless, it’s worth sharing):

“The kiss of the sun for pardon, the song of the birds for mirth, one is nearer God’s heart in a garden – than anywhere else on earth.”

Enjoy ‘harvest time’ with your children – the apples, pumpkins, gourds and all the wonderful goodies that come from our earth.