Talking to Your Kids About Tornadoes, Other Natural Disasters

PHOTO: People walk through a neighborhood south of SW 149th between Western and Hudson after a tornado struck south Oklahoma City and Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013.Nate Billings/The Oklahoman/AP Photo
People walk through a neighborhood south of SW 149th between Western and Hudson after a tornado struck south Oklahoma City and Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013.

After a massive tornado ripped a path of devastating destruction through Moore, Okla., parents are once again faced with the task of talking to their children about a frightening event.

Experts stress that there is no right or wrong way to have these conversations with your kids. There are, however, ways to make these discussions more meaningful.

"Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions," said Dr. David Fassler, an adolescent psychiatrist practicing in Burlington, Vt., and a spokesman for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Children will usually know if you're making things up, and that may affect their ability to trust you or your reassurances in the future."

CLICK HERE for more tornado coverage

Fassler emphasized the importance of limiting television and Internet viewing, especially for very young children. But assume your children already know, or will soon find out about it, even if you try to shield them from the devastating images.

Jeffrey Brown, an assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, agreed that even kids who aren't asking questions may know more than they let on, which is why it's important to control your child's first exposure and response to potentially scary information.

"Even a young child may overhear a telephone conversation or talk to their friends, so it's wise to give very basic information about events directly to them. You want them to hear what's happening from you before they may hear things they don't understand elsewhere," Brown said.

Brown advised keeping information simple and sticking to concepts geared to the child's age, language and developmental level. Some kids will ask you to repeat your explanations several times. Brown said that's perfectly normal, especially if the news is hard for the child to comprehend or accept.

Dr. Richard Besser, a pediatrician and chief health and medical editor for ABC News, said that while it's essential to acknowledge and validate the children's thoughts, feelings and reactions, the worst thing you can do is tell them there is no need to be afraid or that there won't be another tornado or some other bad thing.

"You need to be reassuring, but you shouldn't make unrealistic promises," he said.

Instead, Besser recommends telling your kids that you are doing everything you can to keep them safe. He also added that this is a good time to do some advance preparation for other emergencies.

"Sit down as a family and talk about what you should do if there is any type of emergency in your community. Talk about what you can do to be prepared. This can be very empowering, especially to a child who is afraid of what they just saw," he said.

Brown said that some children might not want to talk about their feelings, but that doesn't mean their insides aren't churning or that the latest bad news isn't weighing heavily on their minds.

"Keeping them active helps give them a physical outlet to release tension and anxiety," he said.

Fassler added that some kids might be most comfortable expressing their fears by drawing pictures, playing with toys or writing about them.

PHOTOS: Tornado Slide Show

Most kids are amazingly resilient, Besser said. If you see signs, though, that your child is feeling anxious or overwhelmed, it's worth a trip to the doctor.

"You want to monitor for physical symptoms, including headaches and stomachaches, or if they're having trouble sleeping, loss of appetite or taking no pleasure in playing with friends," he said.

According to Besser, children who are especially preoccupied with questions or worries about the latest natural disaster should be evaluated by a trained and qualified mental health professional. And keep in mind that kids who've experienced trauma or losses in the past may be particularly vulnerable to prolonged or intense reactions to news or images of natural disasters, and therefore may need extra support and attention.

Despite how tragic the Oklahoma tornadoes and other disasters are, Fassler said he believed they could offer teachable moments too.

"Children learn from watching how their caregivers react in situations, so they will be very interested in how you respond to world events," he said. "Let your kids know that lots of people are helping the families affected by the most recent tornado. It's a good opportunity to show children that when something scary happens, there are people to help."