Jun 21, 2010 Post By: Children's Health

Talking to your children about natural disasters

Although it has been years since the British Petroleum oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, sending untold gallons of raw oil into the sea and fouling beaches and marshes, there are still many things we can learn from it on how to engage in news with our children. President Barak Obama called it the “greatest environmental disaster of its kind in history,” so it wouldn’t have been enough just to tell your children that the oil is bad for fish.

When disasters like these occur, the news is everywhere, and your child likely hears and sees a lot about it. The Gulf Coast oil disaster and pictures of oil-soaked wildlife were everywhere, so parents should be prepared to talk about natural disasters when they come up.

Pete Stavinoha, Ph.D., a child neuropsychologist at Children’s Medical Center, says the Gulf Coast disaster provides a starting point for discussions with your children about environmental responsibility and stewardship.

But it is also a subject that could raise anxieties in smaller children who see images of dead or dying wildlife, so it is important to monitor their time listening to and watching the news.

Stavinoha suggests parents:

  • Listen to children and encourage them to ask questions at their own level of understanding. It’s OK to say you don’t know all the answers. It’s also OK not to overwhelm them with information that they may not understand.
  • Pay attention to younger children’s play and drawings. They may give you a clue about what they are feeling or what they know about the disaster. This may provide the opportunity to talk about it and perhaps clarify their questions.

  • Don’t downplay the seriousness of the situation. Especially for older children, it is important to acknowledge the significance of the event.

If your child is old enough, watch news reports or read the news together to encourage conversation about the topic. PBS has age-appropriate guidelines about how much news children should be watching and what they will understand about the news that are helpful.