Tips for Parents: Talking to Kids About Japan's Earthquake and Tsunami
On March 11, a magnitude-8.9 earthquake shook Japan, followed by a devastating tsunami that slammed into the northeastern part of the country. As news of the quake tsunami fills the media and death tolls continue to rise, parents are left wondering how to explain the tragedy to children.
Age-appropriate conversation for kids ages five to 10
Dr. Jeffrey Dolgan, senior psychologist in behavioral health at Children's Hospital Colorado, says it's important to tailor your communication to younger children by using the following tips:
Explain the natural disasters
For elementary school-age children (ages five to 10), parents should start with the basics by explaining the two natural disasters that struck Japan. Dr. Dolgan suggests renting a book from the library or going online to a kid-friendly, educational website to learn about earthquakes and tsunamis.
Connect cause to effect
Dolgan predicts that after reading about earthquakes your child might just say, "So what? Who cares if the earth shakes a little bit?" Kids this age have a hard time connecting cause and effect. So, the next step is to explain the results of a quake and tsunami, such as what can happen to people when buildings and houses collapse, or when a massive wall of water sweeps away homes, cars and ships.
Personalize the information
Once your child grasps the big picture, parents need to personalize the information by explaining how the quake and tsunami affected people's lives. Dolgan suggests saying something like, "When the earthquake and tsunami happened, homes, schools and buildings fell down and were washed away. Lots of people died -- including people's moms, dads, brothers and sisters." School-age kids will personalize this information and relate it to their own life.
Now that your child grasps the basics, your role is to provide reassurance that he is safe and does not have to worry about an earthquake or tsunami occurring at home (Colorado has only one major fault line, so there is little danger of major earthquakes; also, we're located in the middle of the country and not close to a large body of water). Explain that we have safe buildings, our country is well-prepared in case of emergencies, and talk about the availability of fresh water and food.
Also remind your child that mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, etc. love him and are here to keep him safe. If your child expresses concern about the kids in Japan, explain that there are nice adults who have gathered from all over the world to help. Learn how to help your child overcome fears of natural disasters.
Be honest without saying too much
"It's easy to get carried away and say more than a school-age child needs to know," Dolgan said. "Parents should be open to questions without providing too much information that could become scary or overwhelming." Dolgan also recommends that adults avoid watching news coverage or surfing the Internet with potentially graphic images while children are present. "Wait until after bedtime to turn on CNN," he said. Learn how to talk to your child about the news.
Discussion, preparation and life lessons for tweens and teenagers
For older children like tweens (ages nine to 12) and teenagers (ages 13 to 19), parents can take a more intellectual approach because children this age already understand the impact of the earthquake and tsunami; they've likely discussed the tragedy at school and with their peers. Dolgan says that what kids this age really want to know is "why."
"I like to reference 'the psychology of randomness,'" Dolgan said. "Basically, random events happen that we cannot predict or control, and bad things sometimes happen to good people. Unfortunately, this is one instance where a parent simply doesn't have all the answers, and it's okay to admit that."
The important job for parents of tween and teens is to provide reassurance and alleviate fear by reminding children how smart and well-prepared they are. "I tell kids of this age group to fall back on lessons they've already learned from parents and teachers. And then I remind parents that with such tragedy comes the opportunity for teachable lessons - like empathy, generosity and humanity."
Tips for the whole family
- Donate money: Ask each member of the family to contribute money (kids can use part of their allowance) to make a family donation to a charitable organization.
- Raise money: Encourage kids to start a fundraising project of their own. They could shovel snow, have a bake sale, or even collect cans from around the neighborhood and sell them at a local recycling center - and then donate the proceeds to Japan. Or, ask everyone is your child's class to bring a bag lunch for one day, and donate that day's lunch money to a Japanese aid organization.
- Have fun: Think of some fun ideas to get family and friends involved. Invite friends over for a Wii tournament or a board game night, and charge each person $5 to play. The winner of the tournament gets $20, and the rest goes to Japan.
- Be prepared: If you live in a weather zone where tornadoes, hurricanes, or other volatile conditions occur, be prepared. Children's Hospital's Dr. Ayelet Talmi, associate director of child development and infant health, suggests developing a bad-weather plan as a family so your child has some control over the situation. Read an interview with Dr. Talmi in Parents magazine about the top 10 toddler fears.