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For kids, natural disasters can whip up worries

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By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Floods. Tornadoes. Tsunamis. Terrorism. War. Predictions of Rapture and Armageddon.

Current events have left adults reeling as one disaster seems to come hot on the heels of the last with no relent and no apparent end in sight.

Imagine, then, how kids are coping.

"For kids who are worriers, they see this stuff is everywhere," said Robin Goodman, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City and a member of the American Psychological Association. "They think, 'It can happen to anyone. We could be next.'"

Experts say parents need to be aware of the effect that the daily drumbeat of disaster, natural or otherwise, can have on children's sense of security and well-being, and be ready to support kids who need help understanding how these events affect them.

Kids who have grown up in today's media-saturated environment are more prone to be affected by news of disaster, said Todd Walker, a psychologist in private practice in Cincinnati and a member of the clinical faculty of the Wright State University School of Professional Psychology.

"Even more now than in previous generations, there's less of a distinction between real life and what you see on TV," Walker said. "In this day and age, watching things online or on TV is just one step removed from the event itself."

This may be particularly true for preschool children, who aren't yet media-savvy. "Young kids don't understand that it's the same newsreel over and over," Goodman said of day-long coverage of a particular event. "They think it's the same event occurring over and over."

The effect of disaster coverage can be compounded for children who are undergoing emotional trauma in their daily life, Walker said. For example, kids whose parents are fighting and about to divorce are much more likely to be affected by news coverage before, during and after a hurricane or earthquake, like that experienced in the eastern United States in the past week.

"At best, it would be, 'Uh oh, this could happen to us,'" he said. "But let's imagine we're kids: I'm 6 and you're 8, we don't know what is exactly going to happen with our parents and we're watching [a disaster unfolding] on TV. Our experience will be different than if we had a happy family life."

Walker and Goodman said the best thing parents can do to reassure their children is to talk with them about the disaster coverage in an honest and straightforward way.

"I always believe in asking, 'Hey, I saw you watching that show. What's that like for you?'" Walker said.

Parents may feel the need to hide their own feelings of anxiety to better protect their kids, but Walker and Goodman cautioned against that.

"Be honest in the communication as much as possible," Goodman said. "If you lie about it, they may feel they can't trust you."

It's better for parents to admit they're nervous, but then reassure the child that everything will be all right, Walker said. Give concrete examples of why the disaster couldn't happen to them or lay out the steps you'll take to keep them safe if, in fact, the possibility exists.

Other tips for helping kids cope with news of disasters, according to Walker and Goodman, include:

  • Limit the children's exposure to media, and consider cutting back yourself. "Don't be checking the news all the time," Goodman said.
  • Keep to a daily routine because that reinforces the understanding that life continues to be normal.
  • Avoid whispering with other adults about the disaster. Kids may think the whispered conversation is about them.
  • Point out hopeful stories that come out of the disaster, and note the fact that agencies like the American Red Cross are on the scene to help out.
  • Consider volunteering or donating to relief efforts with your children so they'll feel that they're making a contribution.

But also keep in mind that all kids are different. Some kids might actually benefit from watching disaster coverage.

"Sometimes TV can create a bonding experience," Walker said, using the example of a young boy. "He sees somebody going through a disaster and it can actually be calming because he knows he's not the only person going through a rough time."

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Child Health & Human Development has more about helping kids cope with crises.

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