Jeremy Olson writes about children and families, and is an overscheduled father of two. His blog tackles the best and worst of parenting, families, health and love. He wants to hear from you - what's going on in your house?

Talking about Japan with your kids

Posted by: Jeremy Olson Updated: March 15, 2011 - 5:07 PM

No matter the age of their kids, I'm betting parents have been having some complicated discussions with children about everything from the force that creates an earthquake to the reasons for atomic energy to the invisible fears of radiation. Some are likely finding their young children scared by the images they've seen on TV and worried that such a tragedy could happen here.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has substantial information to help parents, including a fact sheet on how to discuss tsunamis with their children. A helpful informational resource comes from Scholastic, which created a special Disaster in the Pacific section that provides kid-friendly stories and basic graphics on tsunamis and earthquakes.  

Ivillage.com interviewed two psychologists about how and when to talk to kids about what is happening in Japan. Pre-teens and teens may be older and less expressive of their fears, the psychologists found, but pre-teens still need reassurance and teens need honest information about such tragedies and how their communities would respond to them.

Ann Masten, a professor in the University of MInnesota's Institute of Child Development, said parents should acknowledge their children's sadness or fears, and that the disaster in Japan is "sad and terrible. But the reassurance is in saying 'people are doing whatever they can to help make it better. They're trying to rescue people. There's lots and lots of people from all over the world who are trying to help the people of Japan, the children and adults, get better."

Parents should consult guidelines, but also consider the readiness of their own children to discuss a disaster. Some might have more fears than others. Some might have relatives in Japan, making the anxiety worse.

More from Masten, whose expertise is in the resiliency of children following tragedies and disasters:

Regarding the youngest children: "Be honest, but don't say too much. You have to be careful not to say more than necessary because that can be alarming."

Regarding media exposure, remember that young children might not understand that video footage is a replay of recent events. "Young children aren't sure this isn't still happening." Parents can also be overexposed to the coverage: "It can be alarming and traumatic just to watch this." 

Regarding pre-teens and teens, parents can encourage "constructive" responses if their older children seem to want to do something in reaction to the disaster. They could raise money or support for Japan or even make their own homes safer. Teens who seem to want to do something could check the smoke detectors in their homes or discuss plans with their parents and siblings about tornado drills.  

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