How to Talk to Toddlers & Preschoolers about Death & Disaster
What to say when the unthinkable happens
The degree to which a disaster impacts your child’s psychological health will depend on how much the disaster directly affects his routine and schedule. If, for example, the family’s house burned down, a toddler or preschooler would be concerned with and would ask questions about practical things: Where is my nightlight? Where are my toys? These questions provide a chance to address her anxieties about the situation.
What to Say: “Encourage your child to share what he or she understands,” says Dr. Merritt Schreiber, PhD, senior program manager of psychological programs at the Center for Health and Disasters, UCLA School of Public Health. “Address their direct concerns and correct any misunderstandings—be honest and direct and comfort them as much as possible.”
For example, if your child is concerned about where the family will live after the fire, you can say: “Mommy and Daddy are coming up with a plan about where we are going to live right now, and what we can do about returning to our neighborhood.”
What to Do: Dr. Schreiber points out that while talking to and comforting your child is very important, parents also need to get the help they need to cope with the situation.
“Parents need to have their own coping plan, because when parents cope better, the children seem to do better,” says Dr. Schreiber. He says research is emerging on families affected by Hurricane Katrina that shows when parents have difficulty coping, that anxiety is passed to their children .
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