How to Talk to Your Kids About the Tragedy in Japan

The news coming out of Japan seems to get worse every time we look -- first the destruction and death toll, and now the radiation threat. But as parents, we have an additional concern: How do we talk to our kids about these tragic events in a way that makes sense, makes them feel safe, and doesn't scare them?

We asked clinical psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham and Dr. Paul Coleman, psychologist and author of the books How To Say It to Your Kids and How To Say It To Your Child When Bad Things Happen, for their advice:

Turn off the TV. No TV means no accidental exposure to the news. “Knowing there’s been an earthquake is one thing,” says Dr. Markham. “Seeing powerful moving images is another. Your children don’t need those horrific images replaying in their minds.”

Have age-appropriate conversations or skip the conversation entirely. "If your kids have already seen pictures or heard conversations, ask them what they think about it,” Dr. Coleman says. But it's important to be age-appropriate. “If they don’t know about it, I don’t see a need to talk to young children about such huge tragedies.” Young kids may have no opinion, he adds, “but if they express any sort of anxiety or fear, then it's important to have a discussion. Try to figure out what the fear is -- otherwise you may provide too much unnecessary information.”

Preschoolers may be frightened by the images, so protect them from TV and radio coverage, and reassure your child when you talk about it. Dr. Markham suggests the following dialogue: “There was an earthquake near Japan, in the ocean. It shook the ground so that buildings fell and made big waves. It is very sad. But we are safe here, because the earthquake was very, very far away.”

Six to nine year olds are better able to understand natural events, but still need reassurance. You can discuss more about the earthquake and tsunami in terms they understand, but minimize the frightening aspects and end with the reassurance that your family is safe. 

Preteens age 10 and up “still need your reassurance that they’re safe,” Dr. Markham says. “Don’t be fooled by your preteen’s sophistication.” Reassurance can also come with honesty. “Unless you live by the ocean or near a fault line, kids should be told that such a tragedy would never happen to them,” says Dr. Coleman. “If you live in a place that is susceptible to earthquakes or major floods, remind them that such things are quite rare.”

Teens "may want more details about how they can be protected," says Dr. Coleman. “They may not be satisfied with ‘It won’t happen to us.’ Teens and older kids should be provided with more accurate information about how you would react or the community would react to such a tragedy.”

Whatever you say, ask questions first.  Ask your child what she's heard about the events. Letting her talk and listening to what she has to say will help you understand her concerns. Once you know your child’s current grasp of the subject, explain it further to her in terms she can understand.

Encourage them to help. You can emphasize the humanitarian aspect -- how so many people and countries are offering help, and how it's nice to know people can rely on others to help them when they are in trouble, Dr. Coleman says -- and encourage your child to help, too. Young kids can draw pictures; older ones can do something like hold a bake sale to raise money to donate to the American Red Cross. You can also visit KIDSdonations.org to find out more ways your kids can help.

Finally, remember that every child will react differently to the news. Some will cry, some may develop sudden fears or have nightmares, some will overreact about unrelated issues, and others may not seem affected at all. “The real concern is the emotional impact on your child,” says Dr. Coleman. “If they're troubled, find out exactly what worries them and give honest, reassuring answers."

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