On March 11th, Japan experienced its most powerful earthquake ever to hit the country, which triggered a devastating tsunami that set off warnings as far away as the western coast of the United States and South America.
In the days that have followed, death estimates have soared, and as the nation struggles with a search and rescue effort, it also faces the worst nuclear emergency since Chernobyl.
"When there is a significant disaster in the news, such as the recent devastating effects of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, special attention must be paid to our children to help them cope with and understand what has happened," explained Pediatrician Laurie Penix, M.D.
"A tragedy of the magnitude experienced in Japan can be overwhelming for most adults. However, the devastating effects of a disaster can have even more of a psychological impact on a child, who hasn't learned fully how to deal with the fears, grief and overall feelings that such a tragedy evokes. The devastating effects of a disaster can have a tremendous psychological impact on those directly or indirectly involved.
"Viewing images of a natural disaster, such as the tsunami tragedy, might be especially distressing for children, since much of the news coverage of these events has included video and photos of dead bodies, lost children and separated families," Dr. Penix continued. "The vividness of a sensational news story may be internalized by children and transformed into something that they worry may happen to them."
How a child deals with a tragic event depends a great deal on his or her age, level of understanding and overall temperament. "For younger children, especially toddlers and preschool age children, it may be best to just insulate your child from the events," she advised. "Turn off the television or restrict access to channels that show news coverage from the disaster. Many pictures on TV are too graphic for younger children."
Younger children also often have 'magical thinking' and may believe that they did something to cause or influence the event. Make sure your child understands that he didn't do anything to cause what happened. He or she may also have a hard time telling the difference between fantasy and reality, and may not understand that the 'news' is real.
"If your younger child has a question about the tragedy, try to provide age appropriate information," Dr. Penix suggested. "If you think your child wants more details, consider asking a follow up question or wait for him or her to ask for additional information. However, it is important that your children feel like they have the ability to talk about their fears and worries if needed.
"While older children will likely have more questions and may want to talk about the 'reasons' for what happened, you shouldn't assume that your child wants a lot of details. It is usually better to find out what your child already knows about the event, ask open-ended questions and follow your child's cues. Even older children should not be allowed to watch news coverage of a disaster by themselves, and should be accompanied by an adult, who can help interpret and discuss the events with them.
"In addition, a child who is already fearful and anxious may have a harder time understanding or coping with a disaster or tragic event than other children," Dr. Penix advised. "Also, a child that has dealt with a recent loss, such as a death in the family, a divorce or other trauma will frequently have more difficulty in coping with a tragic situation."
There are steps that parents and caregivers can take to help their families lessen the mental health impact of a disaster.
- Keep informed about new information and developments, but avoid overexposure to news rebroadcasts of the events. Watch the news with your kids to filter inappropriate or frightening stories. Anticipate when guidance will be necessary and avoid shows that aren't appropriate for your child's age or level of development. If you're uncomfortable with the content of the news or if it's inappropriate for your child's age, turn it off.
- Keep an open dialogue with your children regarding their fear of danger or the disaster. Children look to the significant adults in their lives for guidance on how to manage their reactions. Let them know that in time, the tragedy will pass.
- Put news stories in proper context. Showing that certain events are isolated or explaining how one event relates to another can help kids make better sense of what they hear. Broaden the discussion from a disturbing news item to a larger conversation: Use the story of a natural disaster as an opportunity to talk about philanthropy, cooperation, and the ability of people to cope with overwhelming hardship.
- Emphasize your child's resiliency and identify what he has done in the past that helped him cope when he was frightened or upset. Children with strong emotional support from others are better able to cope with adversity.
- Talk about what you can do to help. In the case of a news event like a natural disaster, children may gain a sense of control and feel more secure if they can find ways to help those who have been affected.
"Parents need to be aware that their reactions to a global event can affect their children," Dr. Penix concluded. "If you express anger and stress about a world event that's beyond your control, your kids are likely to react in a similar way. But if you express your concern by taking a proactive approach to make a positive difference, your kids will feel more optimistic and empowered to do the same."
Laurie Penix, M.D., is a board certified pediatrician affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's active medical staff and the Pediatric Care Center of Salem, 2020 East State Street, Suite C in Salem, 330-332-0084.