Talking to Kids About the Tsunami Tragedy

ByLeela Jacinto

Dec. 31, 2004 -- -- 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."

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."

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.

When it comes to the "big questions" on life, death and justice, Steinberg suggests that it's best if parents pay attention to how much information a child is seeking.

"Parents tend to know their kids best and can judge how much of an explanation will satisfy them," said Steinberg. "For instance, if a child asks where do babies come from and if he's satisfied with the answer, 'mommies and daddies make babies,' there's no need for an explanation on fallopian tubes and sperm count."

While most experts maintain that children should not be overexposed to disastrous news and parents should control the time they spend before TV sets, they stress that it's important for parents to figure if a disaster triggers certain well-known childhood fears.

"If a situation is closer to children, it impacts them more," said Butterworth. "During an earthquake, if the ground shook, that could frighten them. If it happened at night, kids may be afraid to sleep alone. If something happens, children want their parents in sight."

Certainly the most affected children in the Asian tsunami disaster will be the youngsters who have experienced the tragedy; been physically injured or sick due to the ensuing exhaustion, malnutrition or bad hygiene; or have lost loved ones.

For children experiencing the calamity vicariously, it's important to give them a sense of perspective and hope.

For little Hannes, there has been a happy ending.

After Thai medical officials posted a picture of the boy on a Web site, an uncle in Sweden recognized him, flew down to Thailand and tracked down his injured father, Marko Karkkainen, at a hospital on the southern island of Phuket.

Although his mother is still missing, Hannes was reunited with his father after three days apart.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events