Talking to Children About the Disaster in Japan

Viewing the pictures from last weekend’s Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster brings to mind how we, as parents, can explain such an event to our children. Twenty years ago we did not have to worry quite so much about things we did not want our children to see, but in 2011 it is a different story. The pictures are everywhere. It is near impossible for children to escape the news reports, the pictures and video clips. The internet is swarming with disaster stories and pictures of both the death toll and the survivors.

How much do you tell children and how much do you ignore and hope they don’t notice? Traumatic stress affects more seriously those children that are most directly involved with the incident, but it can also affect children that are safe in other parts of the country/world but who are directly viewing the horrific events on the television or observing the initial and ongoing responses of the adults closest to them, depending on how they believe it affects them personally. The New York Child Study Center has the following suggestions on how to discuss disaster with your child:

1. Consider the child’s individual personality style and temperament. Some children are naturally more prone to be fearful. News showing graphic instances of the catastrophe may heighten a child’s feelings of anxiety.

2. Be aware of your own reactions—shock, dismay, anger—since children are apt to reflect the attitudes of their parents.

3. Adjust your response to the age of the child. Children 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 that the same images are shown many times and may think the disasters are happening over and over again. School-age children may equate scenes from a scary movie with news footage and magnify the personal effect of news events. Teens consider issues of ethics and may feel a need to take action such as becoming involved with a charitable aid organization.

Additionally, there are several internet sites geared toward disaster preparedness and disaster recovery. Fema for Kids ( is a user friendly, interactive site that has helpful exercises for parents and teachers. One particular part of this site allows kids that have been through natural disasters to submit their essays, poems and artwork along with reading what other kids have to say. The Happy Hearts Fund ( offers several videos right on the site that are appropriate for children regarding what it is like to be in a disaster, along with video of several of the foundation’s current projects. These videos, though realistic and some might say graphic, will allow children to view these sites from the safety of their own home. However, as parents, it is crucial that we talk to our children about natural disasters. It is all too tempting to ignore such unpleasant subjects, but ignoring it only leads to confusion, misinformation and unnecessary worry for our children.