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The Impact of Disasters on Kids

When catastrophes strike and are covered widely by the news media, the barrage of tragic and disturbing images can overwhelm many adults. But for kids—from the very young to teenagers—it can be especially confusing and frightening. 
The Japan disaster has been dominating the news for weeks and it’s bound to stay at the forefront for some time. So how do we help our kids cope?
Younger kids have no sense how close or far away an event might be. And they often have fears about whether it will happen to them. Even very young children, who don't appear to be paying attention, absorb more than we realize.
Debbi Halela, director of Youth & Family Counseling at Youth Eastside Services, recommends minimizing news exposure for young children because it can create unnecessary worries and fears. Sleep problems, headaches, stomach aches, excessive irritability and clinginess may be signs that a child is harboring too much stress.
If you suspect your child is scared about something, imaginary play toys and drawing materials can help them express fears or feelings that they may not be able to put into words.
For teens, their worries are often based more on what they know or are learning in school. They might be concerned about how the disaster could raise the likelihood of a quake or tsunami here, or the impact of radiation on food supplies. These can be addressed by exploring the questions via research, then talking about what you learn and how best to be prepared.
Here are some other tips for helping kids when disasters hit:
  • Keep the news off when your kids are in ear shot and reduce talking about it when they might overhear.
  • Let your children know that their emotions are okay by acknowledging their feelings while providing reassurance. Don’t blithely dismiss concerns by telling them not to worry.
  • Encourage children to talk about their feelings. Ask what they have seen or heard and if there's anything they're worried about. Then give them as much information as you feel they need without overdoing it.
  • Use the news to share your family values. For instance, you might point out the importance of helping those who are unable to help themselves.
  • With older children, use the news to discuss tough issues. Natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, can be ripe with questions about economic disparity, for example.
Help your kids feel more prepared by taking the opportunity to work on your own family disaster plan. More information on disaster preparedness can be found at
As parents, we may not be able to protect our children from crisis, but we can react in a way that prevents it from causing undue stress.

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