TALKING TO KIDS ABOUT THE HAITI DISASTER

From Dr. Vicki Panaccione

Kids are being bombarded with disasters on a regular basis. Whether it’s war, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, terrorist bombings and now the earthquake in Haiti, it seems that there is always something horrific happening in the world. And, as you find it difficult to process what’s going on around us, imagine what your kids are experiencing.

There is exposure everywhere…on TV, radio, newspapers, internet and in the classrooms. So, the question becomes: What do I tell my kids? Kids will react differently and harbor different concerns depending upon their own developmental stage, temperament and personality. Understanding your own kids’ mindset will help you decide how much to say and what to do. Obviously, different age kids will require different depths of information.

  • Toddlers do not understand what’s going on. You may tend to project your feelings onto them and be concerned about their feelings. However, they are oblivious, unless they feel emotional cues from you. If mommy or daddy appears to be frightened, grief-stricken or overly-emotional, toddlers may temporarily appear that way as well, because you are upset.
  • Preschoolers are able to understand the basics of what is occurring, yet don’t really have emotional connections to the events. Again, they tend to pick up your emotional cues. So, avoid displays of fear and grief in front of them, and they won’t feel any effect of the tragedy.
  • School-aged kids do begin to understand and are more likely to be exposed to the events. They may become anxious, experiencing fears of personal safety. These youngsters want to know, “Can this happen here?” “What will happen to me?” Provide lots of reassurance. If you don’t live in an earthquake zone, the possibility can be easily negated. If, however, you do live in an area of earthquake possibility, explanations can be made about the preparedness of the city, the better construction of the buildings, etc. Don’t tell your kids that it can’t happen, if indeed, the possibility exists. Let them know how you are prepared, and discuss plans for evacuation, etc. • Older kids may struggle with the spiritual and humanitarian issues, dealing with the loss of human life and the confusion of their God allowing this to happen. These kids need to be allowed to vent, and listened to…just listen. Allow them to have their feelings, even if it’s anger toward their God. It is fine to share your similar concerns, and discuss ways that you can be of service to the people in distress.

Here are some ways to help:

  • First of all, remain calm. Remember your reactions will be signals to your kids. Take care of your own needs, so that you can be more available to tend to your kids’ needs. • Keep news exposure to a minimum. While it’s tempting to stay transfixed to the TV, kids do not need to be bombarded with the gory details and horrific photos. This will help prevent emotional overload. However, don’t stick your head in the sand…kids are being exposed to the story almost everywhere.
  • Give your kids current information in language they can understand to alleviate misinterpretations. Do not try to shelter younger kids; they are picking up information and/or sensing parental concerns. However, answer their questions without elaboration. Don’t overload them with information beyond their emotional level to process.
  • Allow your kids to join in discussions and encourage questions and expressions of opinion. If they are watching TV or reading the news, help them process incoming information by discussing and “debriefing.” Ask questions and explore kids’ understanding and perspective.
  • Attend not only to their questions, but also to their behavior. Kids cannot always identify their stressors or relate their behavior to a particular stressor. Be aware of any significant change in behavior or personality, increase in somatic complaints (headaches, stomachaches, etc.), nervous habits, crying, nightmares, excessive clinging, etc.
  • Anticipate some regressive or acting-out behaviors; do not be overly concerned or critical. Recognize them as possible signs of stress. Some kids may display younger behaviors such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, tantrums. Academic performance may suffer; withdrawal from social activities may be noted. Provide reassurance and unconditional love.
  • Allay fears. Be sure kids know they are safe. Use visual aids (i.e.-globe, map) to convey the distance between your kids and the disaster. If there are family members away from home, be sure that their locations are noted, as well. • Allow time for play. Play is one of the most important channels kids have for dealing with stress and mastering their anxieties. Taking the role of an aggressor increases their feelings of control over their world. Younger kids may also find it easier to express their feelings through drawings.
  • Give your kids lots of physical affection. Allow them to be more dependent upon you during this time of stress. Kids need comfort and reassurance even more when stressed.
  • Encourage your kids to get involved. Taking action can alleviate feelings of helplessness and anger. Participation can range from praying, sending care packages, donating money, clothes and toiletries to the Red Cross. Find out what your local religious institution or community is doing to help with the recovery and get involved.
  • Seek professional help. If you see your kids becoming overly anxious, or behaviorally affected, and are at a loss as to how to deal with these issues, call your pediatrician or seek the services of a child psychologist.

Dr. Vicki is available to answer your personal questions regarding this matter. Contact her through: www.BetterParentingInstitute.com

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