(from Bright Horizons Family Solutions)
Extraordinary events like Hurricane Sandy test you as parents, both as guardians of our children trying to keep them emotionally safe, and as our children's teachers trying to raise young children who become enlightened and empathetic adults. Children learn from what we say and don't say about the world and their place in it and from our actions.
For young children in times of unease, the strength of our calm presence and simple reassurances help to make the world a safe and manageable place. Because adults determine the emotional climate for young children, adult reactions to disasters will impact on children's reactions.
"Could that happen to me? Will I always be okay? Will you be okay? Will everyone I love be okay? Will the world be okay?"
Some children may see the images on television and become anxious, particularly those who live in coastal areas, have been directly impacted by the storm, have experience with hurricanes or floods or earthquakes, or tend to be very empathetic or sensitive to potential threats.
As children get older and their understanding of the world outside their home grows, they not only need us to be calm and reassuring, they need our knowledge and our ideas about the larger issues: life is unpredictable; natural and manmade disasters periodically create catastrophe and tragedy. Why? Sometimes innocent people die and some people are more vulnerable than others. Why? How can I help people who are hurting?
Children Need Our Wisdom
Children grow into the kind of people they will become at least in part by how we guide them through their questions, concerns and fears, and whether we use the teachable moments thrust upon us to guide and teach the children we care for. Our children need our worldview articulated in language they are developmentally able to understand. They will observe not just what we say, but what we do.
How and what we teach our children depends on who we are: our civic nature and sense of compassion; our spirituality and feelings; and our willingness to take the time to learn about events, respond with compassion and generosity, and pass that on to our children.
The most important thing we can do for our children is to be there, listen, be our most thoughtful selves, and respond to their emotional and educational needs. The family can be a safe haven where children can express their ideas and fears, and be assured that their parents will do their best to protect them. It can be a place to teach them about the world that they will inherit.
Our Responsibility to Children
Some preschool and school-age children will react to the hurricane with anxiety and questions, others with little anxiety but lots of interest. Other children will experience little anxiety and little interest.
Our responsibility as parents is to:
• Recognize that every child is an individual.
• Reassure children of their own safety and security.
• Help children play and talk through their feelings and understandings.
• Limit their exposure to scary images by reducing exposure to the media.
• Help children participate in global events in ways that are meaningful to them.
Disaster and Children's Play
It is natural for children to reflect events around them. If disasters are dominating the talk of adults and the news, you may find young children express their concern or interest in their questions, play, or art.
Answering Children's Questions about the Hurricane
If your children are interested in discussing the hurricane, be prepared with the facts of the situation and the appropriate language. The key points for talking to any child are to:
• Tailor your response to the individual child - keep in mind your child's age, personality and level of interest.
• Ask what your child knows and is thinking about; answer his questions without over-explaining or providing more details than necessary.
• Help her understand that the natural world is a source of both life and struggle: water, wind, fire, and the earth beneath us are a part of our lives. If older children are interested in how hurricanes happen, help them find out more about these natural processes.
• Help older children understand about the world that they are seeing and use it as an opportunity to discuss issues of culture, poverty, global responsibility, and geography.
Helping the Victims
Children learn empathy and compassion by taking actions that help others and watching parents who model kindness, generosity, and compassion. Even an action as simple as taking your children along when you check on an elderly neighbor is a great way to model caring.
Relief organizations are beginning to mobilize support for affected families and many communities have local efforts contributing to relief in some fashion. Your family may choose to get involved in a variety of relief efforts that may be planned in your local community. Events of this magnitude are often times when communities come together in support of each other. These are great "teachable" moments for the development of empathy and compassion in our children.
The Clark Institute: Private Practice Psychotherapy
for Children, Adolescents, and Adults
Human Resource Associates
Matthew Clark, Psy.D.