“Oh, no, that’s a body!” exclaimed my 14-year-old daughter as she stood staring at the front page of the LA Times. The photo is of a dead man being pulled from the wreckage of the horrific earthquake that has devastated Japan. While I am as mortified and saddened by the destruction and loss of life as anyone else, I wonder if this imagery is really necessary? As human beings do we really need the visual impact to understand how horrible things are across the Pacific? As a parent and someone who works with children and families it is quite disconcerting to me that these images are everywhere we turn right now. Many parents are having a difficult time wrapping their own minds around this tragedy, and even a more difficult time explaining it to their children.
Parents often underestimate the impact a distant catastrophe of this magnitude can have on their children. Some even believe that they may be protecting their children from it without realizing that there is no getting away from it. It’s on the news in our cars; it’s on the TVs in our homes; it’s in every newspaper and on the cover of every news magazine from your kitchen table to the grocery store checkout line. Our children are like sponges taking in images and stories all around them every minute of every day. Their young brains work overtime trying to assimilate this information and categorize it into their own experiences. Depending on the age and stage of your child’s development it’s imperative to be ever vigilant about helping them process this disaster.
Very young children, 3 and under, should be protected from as much of the visual imagery as possible. They are incapable of understanding that the things they see on TV are not happening in their own back yard, or that they are safe from the fires and flooding. Likewise preschool age children should not be subjected to the visual imagery available on TV, computers or in print. Parent must be vigilant about watching for signs that their child is trying to process the earthquake. Some children will act out by recreating an “earthquake” in imaginary play, and others will begin to use terminology they are currently hearing and seeing. Parents can best help their child deal with this by asking questions to get a clear picture of their current understanding, and answer the questions in a simple and clear manner without inducing fear or anxiety.
School age children are more probably hearing lots about the earthquake in school, and some may even have friends whose family have been affected. Again, rely on asking questions to help you gain a deeper understanding about what your child already knows, and where it is you might be able to further their grasp of the situation. Do your best to reassure your child that in the unlikely (or for some of us more likely) event something like this happens here the adults are doing everything they can to prepare. Older children should be encouraged to help in a family’s disaster preparedness plan. By allowing children to be part of the preparation they will feel more secure and reassured that the family is adequately equipped to cope in any unforeseen event.
For more detailed information about preparing your family for a disaster please go to http://www.fema.gov/areyouready/emergency_planning.shtm