Susan C. Stone's Practical Parenting Blog dotcom

Japan and the Middle East – Helping Your Child Cope

Posted on: March 17, 2011

While we adults experience distress over the terrible events taking place in Japan and the Middle East, children can be influenced in a much more profound and enduring way. The younger the child, the less perspective they have and the more literally they interpret what they see and hear. Young children in particular don’t have a clear idea of cause and effect, time and distance and, at the same time, have limited vocabulary, experience and frames of reference.

Isn’t Japan just down the street?  When will the radiation come here?  That’s how the ocean acts?  Are there rebels hiding in our house?  Could this happen to us?

These are examples of how their perceptions can be distorted  and shape their view of the world.  It’s possible for them to  internalize a sense of insecurity and hopelessness. Exposure to stressful world events has the potential to create in children fear, a sense of the loss of protection and stability and even anger.


AGES 0 – 6:  1. Remember that they are not clear about the difference between reality and fantasy. Images of a tsunami on television might stir up fears that the water could rush out of the television and engulf them.   And because they literal, repeated and  rerun images of war and natural disasters easily have them believing that the same events are taking place over and over.

2.  So it’s crucial that you CONTROL THE INFORMATION FLOW! Young children need to be shielded from information and images they can’t understand and can only make them anxious. This means no exposure to TV, computer or radio news. Be cautious about the images printed on newspaper and magazine covers.  Be aware of the adult conversations you’re having within their earshot (which doesn’t end when they’re in the other room, watching cartoons, or supposedly sleeping!)

AGES 7-10:  1. Children in this age group may have exaggerated worries because they have both too much information – through exposure to media and exposure to adult conversation – and too little information through playground gossip and rumors as well as out of imaginary fearsome scenarios they create out of bits of information they string together and is out of context.

AGES 11-16:  1. Know that children in this age group are particularly sensitive to societal distress because it reflects the inner turmoil they are experiencing – both the world and their bodies seem to be spiraling out of control.

While you can try to  shield very  young children from world events, children of any age may be exposed to information anyway – through peers, walking by a newstand, seeing media displays at others’ houses. Sometimes they just sense something is going on by a change in your demeanor.  Older children actually need to understand what’s going on in the world and what your views and values are pertaining to them.

Your best bet in helping them cope with world events is to make sure you have open and on-going communication with your children.  Talking decreases fear and anxiety for all of us. With children, it also allow you to correct misinformation (Japan is not down the street!) and to provide learning experiences. (Where is Japan? How often does a 9.0 earthquake occur? Has there ever been a tsunami where you live? How far away is the unrest in the Middle East?)

1. Before you begin providing information, assess what your child knows and what their concerns are. Don’t give more information than  your child asks for.

2. When you do give information, be honest in your answers. Children sense deception and the imagined “truth” can be worse than the reality.  Being dishonest can also interfere with the trust between you and your child.

3. When you provide explanations, speak calmly. Your reactions effect them more than any information you impart. If they sense you are extremely distressed or out of control, they feel acutely unsafe.

4. Provide age-appropriate perspectives and frames of reference. For example, this is happening far, far away. These things hardly ever happen-they are highly unusual which is part of the reason there is so much news coverage. Tell them it is very unlikely

to happen to us. Let them know that bad and scary feelings go away and that even big problems eventually get solved.

5. Provide reassurance. For younger children this would be on a personal level – “It’s my job to keep you and myself safe”.  For older children, you can explain that smart and capable people – military personnel, the government, engineers, and other

experts are working on solving the problems. Create a disaster or earthquake kit and plan and have your children be involved. This creates some sense of control. Teach them  that should an “event occur, if you’re not around to look for  the

”helpers” (teachers, caretakers, police, firefighters, etc.)

6. For young children, allow them plenty of free play time which gives them an opportunity to act out or draw their perceptions and concerns which you can then address or correct.

7. Maintain normal routines. Also limit your own television or internet viewing of distressing situations – it can elicit anxiety and despair in you which can be sensed by your children who may interpret this as you being disabled as a resource and protector.

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