Talking to Children About Disaster

I grew up in an area of the country that has been called “Tornado Alley.” My great grandmother was once blown through the air by a tornado and thankfully survived. A tornado recently devastated the small town where my father pastors and took the lives of some of his church members. As a child, I can remember crouching in fear as a tornado roared in the air above our house.

Fear and uncertainty obviously come when disaster strikes up close, but can also be felt from a disaster that happens somewhere else. I want to discuss how to talk to children when they find out about a disaster that has happened somewhere else. These are tips you can share with parents and kidmin leaders in your ministry.

Know where children are coming from. They tend to personalize things. Will this happen to me? Will my house be destroyed? Will someone in my family be injured or killed? Will I lose all my belongings?

Be aware of kids’ different personality types. Some children are more prone to be sensitive and fearful. Others will not pay as much attention to what is going on. Knowing the child’s personality will enable you to more effectively help them.

Be sensitive to children who have previously been through a stressful situation such as divorce, death of a family member, or disaster. 
 
Reassure them that disasters are rare events and they are very safe in their home. 

Protect them from overexposure of the disaster through images on television, internet, or other media sources.  

Remember children will watch to see how you respond to the situation. If they sense you are stressed, fearful, or anxious, they will pick up on it and mirror that response. Remain as calm as possible.

Have open conversation. Ask questions and listen.

 

  • What did you hear?
  • Do you know what is going on?
  • Why are you worried?   

Under the age of 7, it is often best not to initiate a conversation about a disaster unless they become aware of it and bring it up. Answer questions calmly, clearly, and honestly, but don’t go into details.

Remember it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Find answers to their questions together. Use it as a teachable moment.

Be prepared to answer the same questions several times. Children will ask questions several times when something is hard to understand or they need reassurance.

Let them express their feelings. Ask them to write down or draw pictures of what they are experiencing.

Pray with the child.

Share God’s promises with the child.

Disaster can strike quickly and without warning. It can be frightening for adults and traumatic for children. Children may be forced out of their homes or normal lives. They can become anxious, confused, and frightened.

Observe how the child is reacting. Children will react in different ways based on their personality. Some will show very noticeable reactions. The National Association of School Physiologists has identified reactions that can occur when children go through a disaster.

 

  • Preschoolers—thumb sucking, bed-wetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behavior, and withdrawal from friends and routines.
  • Elementary School Children—irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration, and withdrawal from activities and friends.
  • Adolescents—sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behavior, and poor concentration.

Other children may not seem to be affected by the disaster at all. Knowing the child’s personality will help you more effectively access how they are reacting.

Respond to the child’s reaction. Acknowledge their reaction. Accept their reaction. Empathize with their reaction. If they are crying, it’s okay to cry with them. If they are angry, let them know you understand how they must be feeling.

Listen. Ask questions. Listen. Ask questions. Listen. Allow kids to express their feelings, concerns, and fears. Verbalizing what they are feeling will help them begin to process it. If the child doesn’t want to verbally communicate, then encourage them to write down or draw what they are feeling.

Be prepared to answer the same questions several times. Children will ask questions several times when something is hard to understand or they need reassurance.

Share God’s promises with the child. Read appropriate verses that deal with what the child is feeling. Have the child read the verses out loud with you and share what it means to them. 

Pray with the child about the tragedy. Pray with simple, childlike words of faith. Give the child the opportunity to pray as well. Tell God how you are both feeling and ask for His help to get through it.

Let the child know that Jesus is their best friend and will always be with them no matter what they go through.  He will never leave them.
 
Help meet their needs. If the child and family have experienced personal loss, rally support and help them get back on their feet.

Help the children get back into a routine as soon as possible. Routine helps bring security and stability back into to a child’s life.

Provide opportunities for the child and family to take a break. Fun, entertaining activities can help bring some relief from the turmoil they are experiencing.

Be there. Even if you are at a loss for words, just being there for the child and family will make a difference.

Have a copy of Comforting Children in Crisis by Group Publishing on hand. I have given each of our staff members this book. It is full of great advice and tips on how to minister to children and families in times such as a disaster. I use it constantly when helping children and families.

Walking with a child and family through a disaster usually comes unexpectedly…and it’s never easy. You may have a lump in your throat and your heart may be skipping a beat. That’s okay. Do your best and lean in total dependence on the Great Comforter.

 

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Dale Hudson
Dale Hudson has served in children and family ministry for over 27 years. He is the Founder and Director of Relevant Children’s Ministries which provides resources and coaching for churches. He has been named one of the Top 20 Influencers in Children’s Ministry. He is the co-author of six ministry books, including If Disney Ran Your Children’s Ministry.