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  • Writer's pictureDr. Luisa Bryce

Funnel clouds and magic wands: How to answer your child’s questions when natural disaster strikes

Natural disasters. They happen. Hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes… they happen and all we can really do is try and be prepared. We can’t prevent them or alter their course, and we can’t know for certain we’ll be able to protect our family, if and when we experience such an unfortunate event. This feeling, this lack of being in control, of being able to do something, just doesn’t sit well with most people. For me, in a sense, it makes me feel helpless. I felt this helplessness the other day as I met with a little girl for therapy. Often, when I first meet with children, I ask them to tell me what their three wishes would be if they could wish for anything in the world. When I proposed this question to the little girl, she looked me in the eye instantly and said something to the effect of, “Well, of course my first wish would be to have a magic wand. That way when I saw the tornado in the sky in Oklahoma, I could have put a magical spell on it and made it go back up into the clouds. That way, no one would have died and those kids would not have had to hide in the bathroom.” I looked at her and told her I wished that too. And I felt helpless because we don’t have magic wands. We can’t cast spells to prevent children from being hurt and we cannot keep tragedy out of the world. However, we can help children recover from and cope with the world’s tragedies and natural disasters. As a parent, it’s up to you to be prepared when your child comes to you with questions. Here are a few tips on what to say and how to say it:

  1. Try to shield young children from tragedy. Younger kiddos will likely have difficulty understanding “why” and “how” natural disasters occur and don’t need to know. If your young child does ask questions, keep your answers concrete and brief (e.g. “A tornado is a very strong storm cloud that looks like a funnel. It hurt many people and ruined house and schools, but now the people are safe and everyone is helping them.”)

  2. Show appropriate emotions (you can let your kids see that you are sad, as this is appropriate to the situation). However, don’t go overboard. If you are crying hysterically, wait until your own emotions are in check before talking to your child. You are your kiddo’s rock; and your child needs to see you are stable and handling the situation effectively.

  3. Encourage your child or teen to share and express his/her feelings and emotions with you. Do not discount your child’s feelings (e.g. if your child says, “I feel scared” say, “Yes, I understand. What happened was very scary,” instead of, “There’s no reason to feel scared.”)

For more ideas and resources on how to talk to your children about disaster, check out:

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