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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Helping Your Child Cope with a Disaster

January 16, 2013

By Claire McCarthy

These days, it seems to happen all too frequently: hurricanes, mass shootings, plane crashes. Sometimes it feels like every time you turn on the TV news or open a newspaper, there is something scary or sad going on.

These events are disturbing for us as adults. For children, they can be even harder. So what can parents do to help their children cope with a traumatic event?

Limit your child's media exposure. This is a good idea to do in general for all sorts of health and emotional reasons, but it's particularly important when there has been a tragedy or disaster. Media outlets want to get viewers — and there's nothing like gory details and sensationalism to do that. Sometimes they can be too much for adults to handle, let alone children. So just keep the TV off, if possible. However…

Talk about it. Very young children might not ever find out that something has happened. But any child who goes to school (certainly elementary school and above) has a good chance of hearing about a major disaster or tragedy — and it's better that your child hear the facts from you rather than get distorted details from an uninformed classmate. Keep it general. Again, gory details just aren't good for anyone. The younger the child, the fewer the specifics. Answer their questions matter-of-factly. Acknowledge their feelings. Understand that they may need to talk about it more than once.

Remind your child that most people are good — and that disasters are uncommon. The media have a way of magnifying and multiplying the effect of tragedies or disasters. We feel like we could be the next target. But really, most people are never directly affected by things like mass shootings or major natural disasters. Thankfully, they are uncommon. Remind your child of this.

Talk about the people who are helping. There are always inspiring and heartwarming stories of people who save lives and otherwise make a real difference during a tragedy or disaster. Some are emergency responders, but some are just ordinary people. Talk about those stories and about those people. Inspire your child to be like them. Remind your child that there are always people who will be there to help them. Speaking of which ...

Reassure your child that you, and lots of other people, are always working to keep her safe. Talk about:

  • The ways you as a family keep each other safe
  • Security precautions in school and in other public places
  • What your child can do when there's a tornado warning or a hurricane
  • How to call 911

Help your child understand that her safety is important to many, many people.

Think of ways to help. Helping others is a constructive way to cope with these situations. And it teaches your child compassion. Donate to organizations helping victims. Whatever the need is, respond to it. Show your child that we are all part of a bigger whole: Not only are we affected by what happens to others, but we can and should take care of them, too.

If you can teach your child that, you will have gone a long way toward making this world — and her future — better.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more information about safety on its website.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.

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