How should parents explain disasters such as the Japan earthquake and tsunami?

The pertinent question that arises is how do you as a parent explain that natural disasters and other terrifying events occur while at the same time making your child feel safe. The likelihood of our child picking up on newsworthy events, even if you keep them from watching the news, their radars are open to learning about their world and to make sense of this information, can be through word of mouth or overhearing adults speak about what is going on globally. Natural disasters like the recent Tsunami in Japan can trigger an excessive fearful reaction which may spill into the family’s sense of safety and omnipotence  in the world.

Use this major event as a teachable moment with your child. Listen out for comments or questions about what is going on, and open the conversation from there. If your child does not bring up the topic, the best way to find out what your child knows is to ask openly, for example, “do you know what is going on in Japan?” Talking about natural disasters can lead to discussions about how to help others, and it gives you as parents an opportunity to role model compassion.

Depending on the age of your child, children under 8 years,  have difficulty differentiating fantasy from reality. Images from both fantasy and reality can be frightening. For these children, limiting their exposure to these events on TV or print is recommended. Explain that tragedies like natural disasters are unusual and that there is little chance that your city will be affected. Answer questions honestly, calmly, clearly and keep it simple for your child to understand. If your child displays signs of fear, acknowledge the fears and give reassurance that the family is safe. Correct any misconceptions, and then offer reassurance. Avoid labelling feelings as good or bad. Let your child know that their feelings make sense, and that it is ok to feel whatever it is they are feeling.

For older children, it is suggested that you be open and receptive to listening and answering your child’s concerns. Questions about the natural disaster may come up at any time, whilst driving in the car or shopping, so be prepared and open. Let your child understand that it is important for you to be there for your child and probe further any signs of distress, and set aside a special time to answer any questions or address any underlying fears that may have arisen, but also respect your child if he/she does not want to talk about it. Discuss the news together will allow you to assess your child’s reactions and ascertain if the feelings are fearful or just curiosity about the event.  If you do not know the answers posed by your child, suggest to explore the answers together by for example searching the web, and be open to his/her opinions that may differ from yours.

Are children likely to become anxious about natural disasters and other news events such as crime reports?

Some children are predisposed to anxious feelings and irrational fearful thoughts, who may become more anxious after being exposed to news about natural disasters or violent crimes. Even after the event has passed, the anxiety may persist. The child may not have the words to describe anxious feelings. A child, who is dependent on adults for love, care, security, fears most the losing his/her parents and being left alone. Given that a child finds it difficult to distinguish a real threat is more likely to be overwhelmed by fears with no basis in reality. Although children may respond to an imagined threat in the same way as a real threat. When there is an interruption in the natural flow of your child’s progression in life, the child may experience anxiety and fear. Fear is a normal reaction to any danger that threatens our well-being. Parents need to be aware, that there are fears that stem from within the child, like fantasies, and fears that are triggered by a real event, like the Tsunami in Japan. As parents, we cannot completely cocoon them from what is happening in the world, and to rather see this as an opportunity for open dialogue, sharing and reassurance.

How do you know when your naturally anxious child needs therapy?

Most parents are capable of helping their child overcome basic fears. In cases of severe anxiety, when the fears persist over an extended period of time or when it interferes with the child’s ability to cope and function in his/her world, early professional intervention  will result in better outcomes.  Some symptoms to be aware of and to know when to refer your child for Play Therapy or an assessment:


  • Clinging, crying, whining, screaming;
  • Following a parent everywhere;
  • Refusing to be left alone;
  • Being fearful of darkness or animals;
  • Losing bladder or bowel control;
  • Stuttering or other speech problems;
  • Having sleep disturbances or loss of appetite;
  • Trembling or being unable to move;
  • Exhibiting regressive behaviours such as bed-wetting and thumb-sucking;
  • Refusing to go places that remind them of the place where the traumatic event occurred; and
  • Re-enacting parts of the devastation in their play.

Older children: (These children understand that changes can be permanent. They may become preoccupied with the details of the disaster or exhibit fears that seem unrelated to it.)

  • Being withdrawn;
  • Expressing irrational fears;
  • Being irritable;
  • Having angry outbursts;
  • Having sleep disturbances such as nightmares, night terrors and bed-wetting;
  • Being competitive with siblings;
  • Isolating him or herself;
  • Refusing to attend school;
  • Being disoriented and/or easily confused;
  • Exhibiting poor concentration and school performance;
  • Losing interest in activities;
  • Expressing physical complaints such as headaches, stomach aches or dizziness; and
  • Being depressed, anxious, or emotionally numb.

PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre – Clinical Psychologists call on 011-450 3576


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