How to Talk to Kids About Trauma and Natural Disasters

DES MOINES, Iowa – It is hard to explain to children what he or she sees on TV when it comes to natural disasters.

Recently with both Hurricane Harvey and Irma children are asking questions that adults may not have the answers to.

Nurse Manager at Mercy Behavioral Science Sarah Schuller said it is important to note that young children normally are not exposed to trauma at a young age.

“A really important thing to remember is that kids learn from their parents’ response. Kids don’t have exposure to this kind of trauma normally. So, they read their parents response to learn how to respond. The first thing to remember is to talk to them at an age appropriate level,” Schuller said.

Some tips when talking to children about natural disasters include:

  • Creating an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions.
  • Give children honest answers and information.
  • Use words and concepts children can understand.
  • Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times.
  • Acknowledge and validate the child’s thoughts, feelings and reactions.
  • Remember that children tend to personalize situations.
  • Be reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises.
  • Help children find ways to express themselves.
  • Let children know that lots of people are helping the families affected by the disaster.
  • Children learn from watching their parents and teachers.
  • Don’t let children watch too much television with frightening images.
  • Children who have experienced trauma or losses in the past are particularly vulnerable to prolonged or intense reactions to news or images of natural disasters.
  • Monitor physical symptoms including headaches and stomach-aches.

Schuller said Hurricane Katrina hit when her son was young, and asked him a simple question of what he would miss the most if everything he had was lost.

“He said, I would miss my books. And I said well what if we did a book drive for children in New Orleans? Our tiny church ended up sending thousands of books to help,” Schuller said.

Schuller said It is important to ask children questions like, “what would you miss? Just talk to them about the reality of the situation. What do you have? What do you have that you can give that’s something real. And make it personal, but not scary. If somebody were going to send you something, what would you like to have right now?”

You can reach the Mercy Help Center at (515)-271-6111 if you need someone to talk to.