Parents: How to Talk to Children About Haiti Disaster

We've all been glued to the TV set since Tuesday, watching as Haiti copes with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. As a result, you might be struggling over how to talk to your children about the disaster, and how to protect them from news overload.

Babies, Toddlers and Preschoolers

In terms of exposure, less is more. Even young children can pick up on the emotional content of the nightly news. Studies have shown that infants whose mothers watched afternoon soaps exhibited signs of distress when characters on TV cried or fought, so imagine how the images of the Haitian people's distress — particularly those of children crying — affect your little one.

Remind friends and caregivers to zip it. If your child is in day care, talk to the caregivers about your concerns. Also, realize that your children may need a little more attention, comfort and reassurance if they become upset over the news.

Maintain daily routines. Nothing makes young children feel safe more than maintaining normal daily patterns. If they appear more clingy or anxious, or if they are having trouble sleeping, provide some additional cuddling, a night light, or books about overcoming fears.

Help kids express their feelings. Young children with limited language skills may need your help in naming their emotions. Don't discourage "scary" games, which can help kids work through emotions. Drawing and pretend play can also help them express their feelings. For example, encouraging your child to comfort a Teddy bear can be very reassuring.

School-Age Children

Share your feelings. Start the dialogue yourself with comments like "I find the news stories about this earthquake really upset me." Then see how they respond.

Find out what they know. At this age, children know the difference between fantasy and reality, which, research shows, can actually make stories like the Haiti earthquake scarier, especially for boys. Asking a specific question, like "Have your friends and teachers been talking about this?" can help you figure out where they are coming from.

Show them that people aren't powerless. Talk about how much help and assistance Haiti is receiving and how much more is on its way. Point out the good and hopeful stories of recovery as they arise.

Teenagers

Watch the news with your teen. Use it as a springboard for discussion. Answer any questions they ask about what happened as open and honestly as possible.

Suggest they keep a journal or work on a piece of art. This can be a great way for teens to express their anxiety.

Allow teens to get involved in their own way. Some kids may want to run straight to the local Red Cross with a box of donations, some may want to attend public memorial services or activities. If they do, that should be encouraged. On the other hand, if your teen would rather cope privately, don't force it.

Realize that your child's reaction might not be what you expect. Teens want to feel safe, but they also want to be cool, so they may hide or minimize their feelings. They might clam up or act out to avoid showing signs of weakness or distress. Boys especially may act inappropriately by telling jokes or seeming not to care.

For more information about how you can help your children process the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, visit Annie's Web site at www.annpleshettemurphy.com.

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