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Talking to Kids About Natural Disasters

Dr. Robi Ludwig
Feb. 3, 2010

Earthquakes, monsoons, volcano eruptions. How do you explain tragic environmental events to children?

Discussing natural disasters like the Nepal earthquake is tough for parents to do with  children. Although these themes are difficult to talk about, it's still important for parents to address their children's fears, thoughts, anxieties and questions. No matter how much we may want to, we can't completely protect our kids from what's going on in the world. Open up a dialog with your children, and when they have questions, you'll be there to help put things into perspective.

Here are a few suggestions to help start these difficult conversations and figure out the right amount of information to share with your children, depending on their age and maturity levels. And talk to your babysitter, nanny and close family members about this too. Make sure they know what to say in case your kids go to them with questions.

For more advice, read this article on how to talk with kids about violence.

Preschool and Under
If you have young children who are in preschool or younger, they're too young to handle the news and imagery of these types of natural disasters. I definitely suggest turning off the TV.

Elementary School Ages
School-aged children are going to hear things from their classmates and teachers. As parents, you can't totally insulate them from reality, so it's important to talk about what they've seen or heard. Since children can't always fully distinguish between reality and what they hear from friends or see on TV, they often have fears that a conversation can alleviate. If it's helpful, you can have them draw pictures to express what they're thinking about.

You don't have to go into the earthquake or disaster situation in too much detail. You know your children best. If they're becoming upset or uncomfortable, reassure them that they're safe and rescue workers are already making sure the families in the other country have as much help as possible.

Younger kids also might not understand that this event is happening far away in another country -- they could see something on TV and assume it's taking place nearby. Show them on a map where the country is located and reassure them again that they're safe and the people there have help.

Teens and Up
Once your kids are in their teens or older, you can really open up the conversation. Start asking them questions: What have they seen? What have they heard? What do they think?

Don't assume their experience is the same as yours. Have a conversation and find out what they're thinking about and what concerns they have.

For families with children of all ages, I love the idea of bringing older children into the conversation to discuss with the younger ones -- this can be a time where your family really comes together.

Supporting Other Countries as a Family
It's important for parents to point out that not all children are lucky enough to live in a country like America. Many countries like Nepal are underdeveloped and poor, with populations that struggle every day to get fresh water, food, shelter, education and clothing. By discussing these facts with your kids, you're helping them develop empathy, which is important, and encouraging them to see the world as a global community.

With your older children, you can even talk about things your family could do to help. Ask your kids if they'd like to contribute to a charity that's working in the relief effort. They can also collect supplies through their school or organize a fundraiser.

Try these 6 tips for getting kids to volunteer.

Not everything has to be donation-based, though. If money is an issue, encourage your children to pray or light a candle and think about families in other countries.

Having these types of discussions encourages your kids to understand how fortunate they are, and you can help develop their sense of awareness, charity and sensitivity so they can empathize with people who live under difficult circumstances.

Every child is different. So discussing events like this should be taken on a case-by-case basis. There's no magic cut-off point for allowing your children to watch the news or an age-based formula for talking about these kinds of events. It really all depends on how your child handles fear and anxiety.

No one knows children better than their parents -- you're really the expert in knowing what yours can handle. But you can't go wrong with being open, listening to their concerns and relieving their fears as best you can.

Dr. Robi Ludwig is a nationally known psychotherapist, author and expert on family issues.

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