World tragedy to Children
By Chick Moorman and Thomas Halller
year old has just seen video of real children being washed
out to sea. Your teen sits transfixed watching images of people
clinging to trees, mothers wailing as they discover dead children
in an endless line of unclaimed bodies, and babies crying
hysterically for their mothers. At the dinner table your 5th
grader asks, “Can anything like that happen to us, dad?”
How is a parent to respond? What should you say? What should
you do? How do you deal with your child’s fears without increasing
them? Is it possible to reassure your child at a time when
you, yourself, are horrified by the images of intense pain
and grief you see in the hearts and on the faces of parents
half way around the world?
Yes, you are filled with empathy for the survivors who have
lost loved ones, homes, and jobs. Yes, you are extremely grateful
that your children are safe in your comfortable home as the
horrific images continue to flow onto your television screen.
And yes, you can use this incredibly tragic situation to help
your children learn lessons of love, compassion, and of the
indestructible nature of the human spirit.
Once children have seen the images of tragedy and suffering
it is necessary to debrief it with them. The sooner the better.
By debriefing, we mean answering their questions, providing
information, asking questions, and reflecting their feelings.
Provide the scientific information for which they are asking.
Tell your children in age appropriate language what you know
about how nature can create a tidal wave, tornado, hurricane,
volcanic eruption or whatever the tragedy might be. Keep this
part factual. You can even use books or magazines to assist
you in providing information.
Tell your children the effects of the natural disaster. Talk
about the destruction that was created as a result of nature’s
fury. This is a good time to make the connection between cause
and effect. Limit what you say to what was seen on TV or directly
questioned by your children. Too much information at this
point can increase their fright and worry. The goal here is
to be brief, accurate, and provide them with the specific
information for which they are looking. If you fail to give
them information, if you fail to debrief, children’s brains
will fill in the blanks. Better to fill in those gaps yourself
with factual knowledge than to have your children fill them
with their imaginations.
Concentrate on feelings. Your children will be seeing a wide
variety of feelings expressed on TV. They will see sadness,
panic, grief, relief, joy, depression, frustration and desperation,
among others. In addition, they will personally be full of
unexpressed and often unrecognized feelings.
When you sense they are feeling empathy, sadness, or pain,
say so. Tell them, “You seem deeply saddened about this,”
or “You sound scared and frightened that this might happen
to us.” Children are starving for feeling recognition and
this is a great time to supply it.
When strong emotion is shown on TV, honor it by talking about
it. Mention the extreme sadness and grief that is shown there.
Refrain from being an adult who ignores the grief of others
and refuses to acknowledge it. Do not treat hurting human
beings like they are invisible. Talk about your feelings.
Tell your children about the sympathy, empathy, and pain you
feel for the loss of others. Allow your children to hear and
see you express feelings. In so doing, you are helping them
acquire a feeling vocabulary that they can use their entire
When you communicate your feelings and honor the feelings
of your children for people around the world, you teach them
important lessons about the human condition. You help them
appreciate how we are all more alike than different. You help
them see that we are all connected, no matter how distant
we seem. You help them learn we are all one.
As you go through this debriefing process, encourage your
children look for the helpers. Helpers always come. There
are always people who step forth to help. In the case of a
major tragedy there will be many helpers, playing out a variety
of roles. Point them out to your children. When small problems
occur in their own lives they will have learned to look for
the helpers. There are helpers at school, on the playground,
in the mall, and on the highway when our car breaks down.
Learn to look for helpers and they will be more likely to
show up when you need them.
Discuss with your children how you as a family can be helpers
during this tragedy. Perhaps you can send money, give blood,
say prayers, send love, or call the Red Cross to see what
kinds of items can be donated. Choose one or more ways to
be helpers as a family and allow your children to help implement
that strategy with you. Pray together. Let them observe as
you give blood. Take them shopping for the toiletry items
needed by the Red Cross. Let them help you address the envelope
that sends the check. Get them involved in the process of
being a helper. Let them see and be love in action.
Our deepest sympathies and heartfelt prayers go out to the
families directly affected by the most recent tsunami. The
scope and depth of the pain and heartache of catastrophic
tragedies like this are not measurable. Yet, those same horrific
events can be used for good if we help our children learn
about feelings, looking for the helpers, appreciating the
connectedness of all human beings, and the beauty of one heart
reaching out to another across the continents. We can help
them learn that around the world is a long way away and still
very much a part of our neighborhood.