As the grim news from Haiti streamed across our TV screens this week, I was reminded of the weeks post 9/11 when I tried – often unsuccessfully – to balance my own feelings of despair and fear with my children’s need for comfort and reassurance. Maddie — just shy of her 14th birthday and Nick 9 – were already in school that terrifying morning, so they were not in the living room when I watched the towers crumple and heard gut-wrenching sobs I realized were my own. After walking to their school through an eerily silent city and ushering them home, I tried to contain my anguish, as we telephoned relatives and friends who worked downtown. Although the news that day hit much closer to home (we lived a mere 7 miles from the World Trade Center towers) than the tragedy in Haiti, my struggle to protect my kids from the news, while also enabling them – particularly Maddie – to help the victims and to learn what was going on is probably echoing across the country, just as it did when Katrina struck or when the tsunami of 2004 claimed thousands of victims.
- Determine how susceptible your child is to emotional distress. If your family has experienced a natural disaster before or known someone who has, your child may be more vulnerable to feeling anxious or upset. Also, if they are temperamentally more sensitive or if they are dealing with other stressors (family financial problems, divorce, a tough semester at school), monitor their behavior carefully.
- Don’t ignore or belittle your child’s reaction. According to a 2001 study, parents tend to underestimate their child’s fear in general. No matter what their age, don’t assume your children are immune to the Haiti coverage. And if they do express concern or sadness, never belittle their feelings. This is particularly important for boys, who are often given the insidious message that “big boys don’t cry.”
- Set the emotional tone. If you remain calm as these events unfold, your children will be calmer. Nurture yourself, especially if you are very upset about the news. Get away from the TV or tell friends and coworkers that you need a break from discussions of the disaster. Find ways to connect with your kids; doing something silly just to lift everyone’s mood is important during stressful times.
- Volunteer as a family. If you have older children, find ways to help, either through your place of worship, local Red Cross, or even online. Connect with neighbors to see if your community can raise funds or collect clothes to send to Haiti.
For more tips, check out Talking to your kids about Haiti, an age-by-age guide or Zero to Three's website for information about children and trauma.