Talking with Children About Disasters – Comfort in Connection
Talking with children about disasters can be intimidating for us adults. We have lots of good reasons to avoid the conversation, for example not wanting to scare them more, not wanting to bring it back up if they seem fine now. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have our kids up on our shoulders and keep them dry as we walk through what can seem like such a deep river of tragedy around us?
Hear, if you are willing to hear, that you cannot. Grieve that our kids hear about earthquakes, people dying, wars and people who hurt others on purpose. Grieve and remember that when what is happening is beyond fixable, it may be that the only real comfort is in connection. That someone knows what is going on with you and cares.
When the village that we lived in in Papua New Guinea was destroyed by a Tsunami (Arop, in 1998) we were not there. My parents visited as soon as they could, and our friends there who had lost everything said it comforted them to know that someone knew what had happened to them and cared.
Maybe your child felt the earthquake directly and the terror of not knowing how it would end for them or their loved ones. Or maybe they heard the story and understood that it could (likely or not) happen to them, that is part of their experience now. To comfort them, you’ll need to be with them in their experience of this.
How can we be with children in their pain, their fear, their empathy, confusion and grief? We need to show we see how they are affected by this without giving the idea that it is wrong to feel that way. If we hurry to reassure them when they haven’t asked for that, or if we emphasize problem solving before we’ve shown we understand how the problem feels, we can inadvertently train them that they need to be ok. Or, more accurately, we show that we need them to be ok.
Remember that emotions are like waves and tides, they come and go. Emotion-related problems are usually about how we tried to solve a feeling instead of allowing ourselves to feel it. Instead, here are some examples of things you can say that accept and embrace their painful feelings.
You look sad/scared/etc. now, are you?
Do you want to talk about what is so sad/scary/etc ?
Would you like a hug because you are feeling sad?
It’s ok to have big feelings. We don’t have to try to make them go away.
Don’t worry if you feel really sad or really scared. You won’t always feel this same way.
Sometimes kids hear something and don’t understand it in the same way we do. Young children’s sense of time and space and likelihoods aren’t well developed yet. They might think a problem is near or more likely to happen than it really is. You can listen for any misunderstandings they might have, and look for them with questions like this:
What are you thinking about this (disaster)?
Do you want to ask me any questions about this (disaster)?
Do you worry about this happening to us?
Do you wonder what this changes for us?
Let’s talk about our safety plans for something like this.
Answer questions frankly, but without answering something they didn’t ask. (By the way, this applies to sex-ed for little kids too). Help them to tolerate their anxiety, by resisting reassurance over and over. You can say, instead,
“I know it is a scary thing. How does your body feel when you’re scared like this? What would feel nice to do right now until this scared feeling goes away?
We want to teach self-care in the midst of big feelings rather than attempting to chase feelings away. We could accidentally teach our kids to hide their feelings from us!
When kids seem emotional – whether we can tell by tears or temper tantrums or terrible behavior toward others – we have an opportunity to show we value their experience by looking for and paying attention to what they are feeling that is driving their actions. Make sure everyone is safe, pause to connect with their pain, then address the behavior, consequences, etc.
For Christian families, this is a time of year to reflect on how immensely God valued being with us as an expression of his love for us. We remember during Lent the suffering Jesus accepted and the pain he was willing to feel. May you be comforted as you remember that God is the God who sees you. Remember that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. God does not need you to be ok. Remember and teach your children that Jesus is someone who knows what is going on with you and cares.
Photo by Joe Dudeck on Unsplash