Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community


When disaster strikes

How to talk to your child about traumatic events

Victor Carrion, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, advises open, honest communication with children about catastrophes in the news


News reports this spring have been grim: earthquakes triggering nuclear disaster in Japan, violent events across the Middle East, a barrage of tornadoes in the Midwest and South. These catastrophes present a special challenge for parents, who often wonder how to talk to their children about such troubling news.

Open, honest, age-appropriate communication with children and the reassurance that they are safe are the most important elements of helping youngsters handle news of disasters, according to Victor Carrion, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

“Children really need to get the message that their parents, caretakers, community and society are taking care of them,” said Carrion, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the School of Medicine and director of the Stanford Early Stress Research Program. He has conducted extensive research on childhood trauma and has several suggestions for how parents can help their kids handle difficult news.

Age-appropriate information

Being honest and telling your children that you welcome their questions are key to maintaining their trust, Carrion said. A “say nothing” approach can backfire because it sends the message that children cannot bring their worries to their caregivers.

Kids need information tailored to their age and comprehension level. A preschooler can handle less detail than a teenager, for instance, and children of different ages process their reactions to bad news differently. Playing games or drawing pictures about the news is the best approach for the very young, while engaging in conversation is appropriate for older kids.

“It’s important for children to understand that fear is a normal response to these situations,” Carrion said. “It is appropriate to say that one has experienced fear, one understands the fear they have.”

But children should not be put in the position of helping parents handle their own fears, he cautioned. It is the parent’s or caregiver’s job to help children feel safe. One approach is to describe things their families and communities are doing to protect them, such as having a family emergency plan or earthquake kit.

Information overload

Honest delivery of bad news doesn’t require that parents force a discussion or share every detail.

“Children usually want an answer to a question,” Carrion said. “You don’t have to elaborate beyond their specific question, other than to tell them they can always come to you with more questions.”

It’s appropriate to limit children’s exposure to news reports, while recognizing that older kids may come across these on their own and want to discuss them.

“We know that exposure to the media can increase distress in children,” Carrion said.

And it can help to point out the good that comes from a disaster—for instance, when people from around the world unite to contribute to relief efforts, he said. Activities such as drawing pictures to send to disaster victims, assisting with local fundraisers or helping plan for emergencies can help kids regain a sense of control over the situation.

Signs of stress

Finally, parents should be alert for behavior changes that signal distress, such as increased clinginess in a preschooler, complaints of headaches or stomach aches in a youngster or withdrawal in a teenager. These behaviors are often a clue that a child needs help.

If best efforts to help children deal with traumatic news do not resolve the problem, it may be time to seek expert assistance from a child psychologist or psychiatrist, Carrion concluded.

“Professional help doesn’t always mean years of therapy,” he said. “Sometimes it means just one or two visits for the child or maybe just a consultation for a parent to discuss how to approach a particular kid with a particular temperament.”

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