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Helping Your Child Make Sense of Disaster

  • Barbara Curtis Mother and Author,
  • 2011 14 Mar
Helping Your Child Make Sense of Disaster

If every picture tells a story, the images from Japan are an encyclopedia of misery to come.  As the days and weeks progress, we will continue to see news reports of thousands in shock, grief and despair. 

When disaster strikes, a parent's first thought may be to protect their children from the dreadful news, the staggering numbers, the overwhelming questions. To think of the loss in Japan hurts our grownup hearts.

Would you understand if I said I think we should let it hurt our children's hearts, too?

I've always had this thing about not getting too comfortable, always felt compelled to teach my kids not to take our security and material blessings for granted.  For years I've cut out National Geographic pictures of children all over the world - eager African children crowded in ramshackle classrooms, kids coming home from market with bunches of fish on their heads, squatting on a dirt floor to shape tortillas with mama, herding sheep with papa.  Like the ticker running at the bottom of the news channel screen, they hang at kids' eye-level throughout our house, subliminal reminders that our American lifestyle isn't really the norm.

As a Montessori teacher, I was taught to do this - to introduce at an early age the diversity of the world through striking visual images.  I was also trained to look at things through children's eyes.  And so when a cataclysmic event occurs, my first thought is with them.

My advice for parents: 

  • Do all you can to make this a meaningful event for your children, and to manage the meaning in a way that will build their character, their compassion, and their willingness to sacrifice for those in need.
  • Watch the post-tsunami coverage with them, putting the images into words -especially as the aftermath on the ground becomes more up-close-and-personal.  Don't let your little ones be blindsided by glimpses of broken bodies and weeping parents on TV or in the paper.  Without your intervention, these images can produce deep fears which children have no language to share.
  • Show them on a globe where we live and where Japan's earthquake was centered.  Show them images of life in Japanese cities and villages before the tsunami struck.
  • Teach them to give, but teach them in a way that involves real sacrifice on their part.  Put a jar in the middle of the table - as a constant visual reminder - and fill it with change that would have gone to sweets or movie rentals or something currently taken for granted.  Young children can only comprehend the abstract when we make it concrete.  The sight of the jar, the sound of the change hitting the glass - these seem insignificant to us, but will shape memories for children of their first sacrificial giving.
  • Above all, once we start to hear more news of what's happening on the ground, read or tell your children the stories of survivors.  These will instill a message of hope, reinforcing in your children the habit of turning in that direction when times are tough.
  • Look especially for stories of courage and selflessness - it will take a while to hear them, but they will come. For example, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indonesia Tsunami - which claimed 227,898 lives and until now was the worst tsunami in recorded history - we learned of 10-year-old Tilly Smith, who is credited with saving the lives of nearly 100 people when she recognized as the tide rushed out that a tsunami was on its way. She'd learned about tsunamis two weeks before in science class. Because of her quick thinking and warning, the beach was evacuated before the wave crashed, and no one on that beach was seriously injured or killed.  The lesson: even a little person can make a big difference. While we don't know the stories that will come from Japan, there are sure to be abundant lessons.  What's important is that parents manage the flow and meaning of the information to make it relevant to the heart of the child.
  • Pray as a family for the people of Japan, for generous hearts and a swift response to those in need.  Pray that good will come of this disaster. Pray that we will not be complacent and comfortable, but ever mindful of the needs of others, no matter how far away.

That this coincides with Lent reinforces the need to give beyond our comfort zone - to give sacrificially to trustworthy agencies. The Japanese people will need a lot of help for a long time. We want to keep our kids to understand that when there is a need we are committed long-term.

In that way we can be part of God's transformative power - in which He promises to use all things for good - as we bring up children who may themselves face adversity one day.  We want our kids to to respond selflessly.  We want them to see hope in the darkest hour.  

In the meantime, our job is to ensure that they grow up living locally, but thinking globally - and consistently making choices that show they care.  

March 14, 2011

Barbara Curtis is an AMI Montessori teacher, mother of 12 and grandmother of 12 (so far!).  She is author of 9 books and over 1500 published articles.  She blogs daily at

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