Helping Children Cope with Fears of Natural Disaster

New Orleans: Residents being evacuated from their homes after hurricane Katrina. Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA
In light of the ongoing disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and the accompanying horrific television images, many of us are struggling to find the words to explain to our children what it all means. Pete Stavinoha, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas and a father himself, offers this advice:

• Shield young children from the most graphic images and reports of the disaster
as much as possible. Preschoolers and even some young elementary students are unlikely to understand what has happened, but have the potential to be frightened by what they see.


• Assess your child’s understanding of the disaster and how he or she is dealing with it.
Let your child come to you with questions, and be open to answering those questions repeatedly as he or she grapples with the concept.




• Respond
to questions with fact-based answers appropriate to your child’s developmental level. Don’t try to explain complicated, abstract geological phenomena. Instead, use concrete language that explains what happened on a level that your child can understand.


• Assure your child that the likelihood of something so devastating happening to them is extremely low.
Look at it from a child’s perspective, and give examples that your child can understand. For instance, if you were to fill a bucket with millions of granules of white sand and insert one red pebble, the likelihood of reaching in and pulling out that one red pebble is extremely low. While the concept of probabilities is abstract and hard for anyone to follow, finding ways to illustrate it on your child’s level is important.


• Look for ways to mobilize the values you try to instill in your child every day.
If your child asks what he or she can do, encourage him or her to help the family make a donation to the Red Cross, or draw pictures or cards to express his or her sadness over the situation. Giving your child an outlet for grief and a way to help not only aids in dealing with the current situation, but it also teaches the child that he or she can always play a part in helping others.

More about kids & loss:
Different ages, different responses: How kids perceive death & loss