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OH Expert Offers Tips for Talking to Kids about Haiti Disaster

January 21, 2010

CINCINNATI - With the Haitian earthquake continuing to top the news, it's almost unavoidable that children in Ohio and elsewhere will be exposed to the stories of tragedy. Disasters often can leave children feeling confused, scared or insecure, says Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. When that happens, he says it's important that parents take time to speak to them about their feelings.

"If we don't talk about it, we communicate to children that it's something so horrible we can't even speak about it or that we don't think they can handle it. Both messages are not helpful for children adjusting to the situation."

A good way to get the conversation started is to ask a child what he or she has heard about the situation, to find out their level of understanding, Schonfeld says - no matter their age, most children likely will have heard something about the disaster.

"Younger children are more likely to have misconceptions and worries about things they don't need to worry about, whereas older children may feel more of a sense of empathy for the individuals who were impacted."

Schonfeld suggests limiting a child's media exposure to a disaster. And he advises to keep in mind that the event also could open the door to other concerns a child might have.

"Children who look at something that's distressing on the news actually may show distress or share distress about something completely unrelated that's bothering them, so this might be an opportunity to share feelings related to that topic and help them cope with it."

Schonfeld, who also directs the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, suggests that parents share their own feelings and some of their methods of coping, so the child can use the experience to learn effective ways to deal with life's stresses. One way to help children cope is to show them how they can help those affected by the disaster or others in their community, which will help them feel less powerless and vulnerable, Schonfeld adds.

Mary Kuhlman/Lori Abbott, Public News Service - OH