Talking to Teens about Natural Disasters

Natural disasters are scary for everyone. Tragic events – whether it’s a hurricane, earthquake, tornado, tsunami or other disaster – are not easy to comprehend or accept even for the most mature.

Although discussing a natural disaster with children is a challenge, it is also very important. Even if your teen hasn’t talked to you about the disaster, there is little doubt that they have heard about it from the Internet, friends, school or other venues. They may have received information that was incorrect or frightening. Parents and teachers should take the opportunity to have a discussion with teens about tragedies. Here are some suggestions from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry for how to do that:

  • Create an open and supportive environment where teens know they can ask questions. Be available, positive, and open to all subjects. In listening to children, adults can ease children’s worries by correcting any misunderstandings and confusions. At the same time, it’s best not to force children to talk about things unless, and until, they’re ready.
  • Give children honest answers and information. It is important for teens to discuss the event freely and express their concerns and views. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate. But stay honest; children will usually know, or eventually find out, if you’re “making things up,” which may affect their ability to trust you in the future.
  • Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a teen to ask for reassurance.
  • Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they may worry about their own safety and the safety of immediate family members. They may also worry about friends or relatives who travel or who live far away. It will help alleviate fear if your family develops its own disaster plan so your child feels some level of control over the situation.
  • Be reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises. It’s fine to let children know that they are safe in their house or in their school, but you can’t promise that there won’t be another natural disaster. Tweens and teens already understand the impact of natural disasters and have likely discussed them in school. Kids at this age really want to know “why.” Unfortunately, this is one instance where a parent simply doesn’t have all the answers, and you should admit it. Explain that there are events we cannot predict or control, but they are random and rare.
  • Let teens know that lots of people are helping the families affected by the disaster. Identify ways for your child to help. When they reach out to help others in a time of need, children gain self esteem and a sense of how to respond constructively. If available, your children might participate in school or community projects designed to help raise money, supplies and materials for the disaster area. Your child might want to do extra chores or a project to help raise money for the relief funds.
  • Tweens and teens learn from watching their parents and teachers. They are very interested in how you respond to world events so monitor your own reactions and conversations. Let your child know how you feel about the recent events, which can help children talk about their own feelings as well. It is ok if your child does not want to talk about their thoughts or fears, but encourage them to express themselves in another way, such as writing or drawing.
  • Limit your teen’s exposure to media coverage of the event. The repetition of such scenes can be disturbing and confusing.

Children who are preoccupied with questions or concerns about natural disasters should be evaluated by a trained and qualified mental health professional. Signs that a child may need additional help include: ongoing sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts or worries, and recurring fears about death, leaving parents or going to school. Many children express anxiety through physical aches and pains, such as headaches or stomach aches. An increase in such symptoms without apparent medical cause may be a sign that a child is feeling anxious or overwhelmed. If these behaviors persist, ask your child’s pediatrician, family physician or school counselor to help arrange an appropriate referral.

As parents, teachers and caring adults, we can best help teens cope by listening and responding in an honest, consistent and supportive manner. Fortunately, most children are quite resilient and by creating an open environment where they feel free to ask questions, we can help reduce the risk of lasting emotional difficulties.

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