Talking to Kids About the Tsunami Tragedy

The images of the lost blond, blue-eyed boy sobbing disconsolately in a Thai hospital bed, his face marked with scratches and mosquito bites, were beamed across the world and quickly came to personify an almost incomprehensible tragedy.

A day after the killer tsunami wrenched Hannes Bergstroem from his parents during a family vacation, the 2-year-old Swedish boy came to embody a distressing fact of the Asian disaster: children are the hardest-hit age group in the current crisis. Not only did children account for an estimated one-third of those killed in the earthquake-induced tsunamis, but many of those who survived may have been orphaned.

As wrenching as the images of little bodies in mass graves and sobbing parents clinging to their dead children were for adults, experts say that for children, viewing the footage can be a frightening and confusing experience.

"Children can identify easier with people their own age," said Robert Butterworth, a psychologist at the Los Angeles-based International Trauma Associates. "When a story is too vast, the individual stories that are closer to them become more comprehensible."

Children across the United States are aware of the Asian calamity and its aftermath. The deadly waves engulfed coastlines the day after Christmas, and the stories of the ensuing humanitarian crisis have been unfolding during the Christmas holidays, when children could be exposed to more daytime television viewing than during school days.

"Teachers are often in a good position to discuss a current event in school," said Butterworth. "But this time, it's a sort of unique situation since kids are not in school, so parents can't sit back and expect teachers to handle it."

'Work With Them'

For parents, a pressing issue is whether to discuss the Asian tragedy with their kids and how best to do it.

Most psychologists believe it's better to talk to children about disasters rather than hope they have not been affected by it. "If adults are watching the news and keeping up, and kids are seeing it, I think it's better to then work with them to understand what they're thinking and clarify their problems," said Alan Steinberg, associate director of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

The question, however, is how best to talk to your children about it. And that, experts say, could vary on their ages and ability to understand, as well as their special needs.

"For little children who do not have the verbal capacity, we can use play such as a drawing with crayons to help them understand the situation," said Butterworth. "Older children can sometimes become cynical, so it's good to give them an action model, like having a bake sale to give money to the victims -- children at that age like to do something to make this world a better place. Or you can have a science project to understand the phenomenon."

Why Would God Allow This?

Using science to explain the current tsunami crisis could be particularly effective especially since children often want to know why a tragedy occurred. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, for instance, many parents found themselves explaining that "bad people" flew the planes into the World Trade Center, followed by an explanation of good and bad deeds.

In the case of natural disasters, many children want to know why God would allow such a calamity, a theological issue of considerable complexity even for believing adults.

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