Talking to your kids about the devastating earthquake in Japan


Parents should talk to their kids about the earthquake in Japan but they shouldn't worry them.Parents should talk to their kids about the earthquake in Japan but they shouldn't worry them.

My kids will return home from school today with lots of questions about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. My son will want to know if the tsunami was taller than our house. My daughter will want to know if anyone died. What do I tell them? What do I tell them when they ask whether an earthquake of equal strength could happen where we live in San Francisco, California?

Last night, a massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake shook Japan, unleashing huge waves that swept over the country's eastern coast. The Japanese are now coping with the devastating aftermath of the worst recorded earthquake in their history. The photographs and video footage coming from Japan are heart-wrenching and depict scenes you'd only expect to see on the Hollywood screen.

This morning, the surge headed across the Pacific, spurring tsunami warnings along the California coast. My family lives in San Francisco, and Ocean Beach, where I bring my kids to build sand castles, has been closed all day. Across from this beach sits the San Francisco Zoo, where my son and hundreds of other local school children were supposed to go on a field trip today.

My son will return home from school this afternoon sad that he didn't get to see the gorillas--and I know that both he and his older 7-year-old sister will have lots of questions and crazy ideas about the earthquake and tsunami.

My son has a scientist's mind, like his Dad, and he wants to know how things work. He'll want to know how the earthquake caused the tsunami, and he'll ask if he can see pictures on YouTube. I often I turn to the websites to explains things to him--like when he wanted to know what a tornado looks like. But do I show him images of the tsunami? Won't these scare him?

My daughter is driven by emotion--and she's a great sympathizer of those in distress. She'll want to know about the people in Japan. She'll ask if people died and she'll want to help them. And then she'll begin to worry about the same situation happening here in San Francisco. She's fully aware that we live in earthquake country, and she worries about this. In fact, she had trouble sleeping after she heard an NPR clip about the earthquake in Chile.

What will I tell my children? I want to answer their questions yet I don't want to worry them.

BabyCenter, the leading online resource for new parents and moms-to-be offers some helpful advice. Here are some tips for parents with preschoolers as well as some separate suggestions for those with children in grade school:

How to talk to your preschooler about disaster

Be brief and reassuring. A preschooler may ask a question that seems only tangentially related to the specific disaster, such as "What happens when people die?" You can use her question as a springboard to talk about death, but in this case her underlying concern is really, "Am I safe?" Reassure her that she's secure, and that you and the rest of the family are too. "We're all okay, and we're going to be okay" are important words for her to hear.

Validate her feelings. Resist the urge to say, "Don't be sad/mad/worried." (Do you feel any better when someone says this to you?) Her feelings are real and she needs to be able to express them. Instead, you can say, "I know you might feel worried because you've heard so much about that terrible flood. Luckily we don't get floods here, and no water can come up to our house."

Tell her adults are working to keep her and everyone safe. It's common for preschoolers to assume that a disaster somewhere else in the world could strike them and their families next. As adults, it's sometimes hard to be reassuring in the face of our own anxieties about flying, or even living in earthquake territory. But you can tell your child (and remind yourself) that lots of people are working to keep us safe. Talk about the ways in which everyone from the President to the local police is concentrating on ways to prevent further disasters.

Be ready to revisit the topic again and again. Don't be surprised if your preschooler asks the same questions repeatedly. She doesn't understand permanence yet, so even though she's heard about deaths or buildings falling down, she expects things to magically return to normal soon and may be confused when they don't. She may keep asking about the situation, especially if she sees that it's ongoing.

Find more tips on talking to preschoolers about disaster at BabyCenter.com.

How to talk to your gradeschooler about disaster

Validate his feelings. Resist the urge to say, "Don't be sad/mad/worried." (Do you feel any better when someone says this to you?) His feelings are real and he needs to be able to express them. Instead, you can say, "I know you might feel worried because you've heard so much about that bad flood. Luckily we don't get floods here, and no water can come up to our house."

Use the event to teach empathy and tolerance. A child may have heard that a terrorist attack was prompted by "bad people getting mad." Remind him that people shouldn't use violence to express anger. "Everybody gets mad sometimes, but we try not to hurt other people. We try to use words to work out our problems."

Tell him adults are working to keep him safe. As adults, it's sometimes hard to be reassuring in the face of our own anxieties about flying, or even living in earthquake territory. But you can tell your child (and remind yourself) that lots of people are working to keep him safe, from the President to the police to you, his own parents. A disaster may prompt a child this age to lose some confidence in the abilities of the adults around him, but you can tell him, "I look out for you whenever I know there's danger. Sometimes we learn about new dangers, so we start to look out for you in those situations too."

Remember that he may not understand as much as he seems to. Grade-schoolers often appear to be more sophisticated than they really are. "If he sees pictures of bombs falling in Kabul, a child living in a desert community - say, in Arizona - might not entirely understand that the TV images are of Afghanistan, a long way away from his home," says Garbarino. Try to gently probe his understanding of current events so you can clear up any misconceptions.

Find more tips on talking to gradeschoolers about disaster at BabyCenter.com.

Amy Graff contributes to BabyCenter's Momformation blog and she writes The Mommy Files blog for SFGate.

Photo: Flickr/Nestor Galina