Talking with your children about ... Natural disasters

When Scripture Union undertook research into children and faith, as part of the development of Guardians of Ancora, we heard from many parents, carers and group leaders who struggled to know what to say and how to talk with children about big issues.

These ‘Talking with your children about…’ features are part of our response to this expressed need. We hope you find the ideas and suggestions here help both you and your family.

Why do natural disasters happen?

Issues to think about

Whenever there is a natural disaster, the television and other media depict graphic scenes of devastation and carnage. We may all be in shock. Children's questions are likely to be tough to answer, but honesty and keeping communication lines open is essential. We may need to revisit previous discussions as events unfold.

Parents' questions

Q Can we just ignore the news and hope the children don't see scary images?

A It's tempting to protect our children from unpleasant realities, but ignoring the news, particularly for school-aged children, is probably not an option. They will almost inevitably see images in the media or hear about them from others. Letting children keep fear to themselves can be more damaging than frank discussion – for example, do not be afraid to use the words 'dead' and 'died'. Talking helps to identify specific fears and helps your children express their feelings.

Q Should we let our children watch television?

A Research has shown that watching media coverage, especially repeated viewing, can create stress for children even when they are not directly exposed to disaster. Television viewing for young children should be limited. Parents need to watch with their children in order to be ready to share in and deal with their reactions and to correct misinformation. That assures them that you are there with them.

Q How can we help our children deal with their worry and shock?

A Continue with established routines. Reassure them that they are safe and that you will not be leaving them. When appropriate, talk about things children might do, such as participating in charitable relief organisations.

Q How can we help children feel safe?

A If children want more information and need reassurance, parents can talk about the role of the United Nations, about the scientific advances made to anticipate, avert and deal with natural disasters. The role of world cooperation through agencies such as the Red Cross and the United Nations Relief Fund can be emphasised. Older children may wish to discuss other wars or natural disasters, the way children's lives can be affected, and ways in which they can express their concern and support for victims of such events.

Practical advice

  1. Be aware that your child will respond in a way unique to them, their experiences and personality.
  2. Pre-school children may confuse facts with their fantasies and fears and in seeing the same images over and over again they may think the disasters are actually being repeated. School-aged children may equate scenes from a scary movie with news footage and magnify the personal effect of news events.
  3. Wait for children to ask questions. Be alert to the opportunities to raise the issues yourself!
  4. You are reacting to the news too. Children often reflect attitudes of parents.
  5. Make time to talk with teenage children and do not give the impression that there are easy answers.

Teaching spiritual truths in response to children's questions

'Why did God let this happen?'

This is a question all adults ought to be asking too. The simple but difficult answer is that 'we do not know', even though some tragedies may be the outcome of human irresponsibility or sin – but that is a complex issue. What we do know is that we can trust God even when we do not understand why bad things happen.

During any disaster Christians must rely on God's strength. God is with us in every situation. He has not left us! God does not want us to be afraid. Bible verses such as the following are useful to refer to: Psalm 46:1; 56:3; 73:23; John 14:27; Hebrews 13:6; 1 Peter 5:7; Philippians 4:6,7; 2 Corinthians 1:3,4; Romans 12:21; Proverbs 25:21,22.

Basic questions about life and death, God, good and evil

You need to answer questions honestly, being aware of the age, ability and emotional maturity of your child. You know them better than anyone!

Should a death occur in the family, children should be informed, simply and honestly, without big words and lengthy explanations. This is difficult when the parent is also grieving, but it is better to grieve as a family than to hide or repress feelings. The very young child approaches life with open-minded curiosity. The 'kind' lies of well-meaning adults serve only to shut down children's natural curiosity and delay the development of healthy coping skills. Children need extra support and the opportunity to express their feelings of loss and abandonment just as adults do.

The Child Bereavement Trust website is a useful place to visit. See also Children and Bereavement (Church House Publishing) by Wendy Duffy; or Grandma's Party (BRF) by Meg Harper.

How can we know that God loves us?

We are promised that nothing, in life or death, will separate us from God's love. We live and move inside of God's love and nothing can stop that reality. Even the worst things that people can do to one another do not stop God's love for the world.

Will this natural disaster happen again?

Remember that your child's greatest need is for reassurance. When parents give their children time, love and hope through Jesus Christ, you help them find a way through their fears, anger and confusion. The pictures in newspapers and on the television will be graphic and may focus on children, lost and alone, without parents or shelter. The world can never again be seen as quite such a safe place. Children need to be reassured that as you will not leave them, they need not fear.

The more searching questions of teenagers may be around faith issues but will also be around what is physically happening when events such as earthquakes and tsunamis happen. Be prepared to do your own research so that you can engage in conversation at the appropriate level, not only on the Internet but also through scripture. For example: What effects did sin have on the earth (Genesis 3:16–19)? What did it mean for the earth when it was divided (Genesis 10:25)? The story of Noah is a good one to think through with your teenagers.

What can we do as a family?

  1. Light a candle to remember people you are thinking about, and to remember that Christ is our Light.
  2. Pray together for the following:
    1. In times of war: government leaders; religious leaders; military personnel and their families (in all countries involved);
    2. In times of disaster: victims and their families; doctors, nurses and others who are helping people such as firefighters and police officers; and
    3. Aid provision.
  3. Share Bible verses together. Allow space for exploration. Put these verses in a broader context and see what God is saying.
  4. School-aged children may wish to donate pocket money to disaster funds or get involved with school fundraising activities. Encourage your children to think how you may help as a family. Teens tend to consider issues of ethics and may feel a need to take more action such as becoming involved with a charitable aid organisation. Discuss options and encourage appropriate proposed activities.
  5. Together visit the websites of aid agencies such as Tearfund, World Vision and Compassion UK to get up-to-date information on what is happening and what you can do.

Adapted from Scripture Union Family Ministry Web pages.

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