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What to Say when the Sky is Falling? How to Talk to Kids about Disasters

Should we explain to kids about disasters?  How much?

It was the worst kind of déjà vu: rescue workers in masks; survivors being dug out of collapsed buildings; the 24/7 headline crawl. This time it was the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Turkey in late October that kept people around the world glued to televisions, laptops and smart phones – but it could just as easily have been Hurricane Irene this past August, last spring’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan, or any of a myriad other disasters dating back to New Orleans and 9/11. And if you have a young child in your home, your first impulse is to turn off the screens, hide the newspapers and pretend that none of it is happening.

No one knows quite how to respond to images of people running from a giant wave or sitting on piles of ruined buildings.  It is hard enough for adults to wrap their heads around these events, let alone make sense of them for children. Yet with so much man-made and natural upheaval in the news right now, many teachers and parents are wondering:  How do we discuss disasters with kids? 

When it comes to the youngest children in school, kindergarten through fourth grade,  TC alumnus Samuel Totten, a Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and an authority on genocide who has argued strenuously against teaching young children about the Holocaust in lower elementary school, says there’s no reason to design lessons to teach about such complex and catastrophic manmade tragedies.  “I would make a distinction between young children asking their parents, on the one hand, and active classroom teaching about disasters, on the other.  It’s one thing to answer questions kids have, but another to introduce them to something they have no idea about” – for example, nuclear radiation or mass murder that is overwhelming to even contemplate. 

Totten, who received TC’s Distinguished Alumni award this past year and is a strong advocate of incorporating the study of social issues in the extant curriculum in an age appropriate manner, says some primary, and even upper elementary, school teachers bring up serious issues in an admirable but perhaps misguided attempt to make the biggest impact they can in the single year each cohort of students is in their classroom.  Some topics, however, just aren’t appropriate – and can be flat-out terrifying – for young children, especially in the earliest grades. 

“You have this radiation from the destruction of the nuclear power facility in Japan that you can’t see,” Totten says.  “It keeps spreading; it’s in the water now. It’s disturbing enough for adults to try to think about that without hitting children over the head with it who can’t even conceive the magnitude of the situation.”   He notes that teaching about such issues to secondary level students is a totally different situation, and he is in favor of in depth study of serious social issues in a well-structured manner that engages the students in the facts, the socio-political issues, and the far-reaching ramifications for the individual and society.

George Bonanno, Professor of Clinical Psychology and an expert on grief and resilience to trauma, sees merit in using catastrophes as teaching tools.  Teachers can introduce important societal questions using current events, he says, but adds, “I don’t see schools as the brokers of life events.”  Bonanno supports discussing the actual issues brought up by events, but cautions strongly against what he calls “armchair psychology.” 

“People have approached me a lot to ask me, ‘Do kids need to process their feelings?’ I don’t think that’s advisable almost any time.  People process their feelings with their loved ones – they don’t need to do it in their institutions.”  In fact, Bonanno points out, it can be injurious for schools to dwell on the psychological effects of a tragedy. Even when tragedies affect the students or the school, blanketing the school with crisis counselors ready to talk through feelings is the wrong way to go. “The literature doesn’t support that.  It’s really with close relations that those things happen.”  Schools that try to get students to talk through their feelings run the risk of “manufacturing trauma.”

A better focus for discussion with children is on material aid.  “A lot of what people need in disasters is concrete help,” Bonanno says, and there’s no reason to avoid discussing those concrete needs with children.  “Even the youngest kids can understand there was a calamity in Japan, the Japanese people have suffered an earthquake and a tsunami, some people got hurt, and they need our help.”  As children get older, they can handle more complicated discussions about topics such as the advisability of nuclear power -- although perhaps not right when a crisis is occurring. 

Philip Saigh
, Professor of Psychology and Education and a pioneer in identifying defining post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), agrees that it is important to keep the conversation away from emotion.  “I see no reason to avoid speaking with American children, in a calm, informative, and factual way, about something that happened far away,” he says, with the caveat that such conversations may not be appropriate with children who have ties to an affected area.  Saigh, too, stresses age-appropriate honesty.  “Evidence suggests that younger children may understand and react to trauma experiences in a different way than adults and older children.”

Schools should take into account the nature of the tragedy, as well.  Marla Brassard, Professor of Psychology and Education, parses the difference between a natural event like a tsunami and one involving man-made causes, such as the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor. Children know that there are dangers in the natural world.  When discussing the tsunami, Brassard says, adults can “stress that nature is not completely predictable, but that we do know, by looking at events over time, where things are more likely to happen, and then people can prepare. Talk about how impressive the Japanese preparation was -- the building codes, the training, the tsunami sirens.”  Such a conversation “stresses the real truth, which is that we have no control over nature, but, if we’ve learned that there are certain threats, there’s a lot of things we can do.”  It also opens the door to talking about threats nearer to home – whether the local hazard is bears or mudslides – and ways children can help to protect themselves in dangerous situations.

Brassard, too, cautions that man-made crises raise different kinds of issues – ones that can be more upsetting for children because they raise questions of blame (many buildings that collapsed in Turkey were poorly constructed) or present conundrums that society has not succeeded in thrashing out (the pros and cons of nuclear power in a world increasingly polarized over energy).

Of course, these same red flags can become classroom assets with the right age group. In fact, Bonanno points out, people learn a lot from studying tragedies in other places.  “We all have in us a very primitive biological system, an emotional system, oriented around danger. We are riveted by life-threatening situations.”  This is why adults find themselves glued to YouTube, watching images of collapsed buildings.  We’re pre-programmed to pay attention to dangerous situations so that we can learn from them.  However, this doesn’t mean such images are appropriate for children.  “Adults will have to separate their own instinctive draw to the video and to the images to what they can safely transmit to children.” 

What Totten, Bonanno, Brassard, and Saigh all agree upon is the importance of answering children’s questions honestly – age-appropriately, but honestly.  Learning about dangers may help prepare students for the unpredictability of nature and life -- but, Totten says, “there’s a difference between preparing them and scaring the holy heck out of them.”

By Emily Rosenbaum

Published Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011


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