Yesterday, May 20, 2013, a massive tornado destroyed a small suburb of Oklahoma City causing widespread destruction and an estimated death toll of twenty-four. The images broadcast worldwide showing schools that were demolished and homes that were crushed are shocking to say the least. What makes this even more difficult is that this is just another in a long list of tragedies, in the U.S. alone, in less than a year.
As a parent, seeing this type of disaster hurts me to my very core. I imagine being there, hunkered down while the twister is barreling overhead, and wondering if my child is safe. I imagine the absolute terror I would feel when I walk out of my place of shelter to see the utter wasteland that used to be my hometown and to feel the punch in my gut as I realize that my child may not have survived. I think of trying to get to the school first, not even caring about my house, and not being able to get there. Crying and shaking as I think about the fear my child has felt through this storm, without me. Then I arrive, finally, at the school. The school is gone. There is a pile of rubble. My god. My god.
The kids who have survived. These poor angels. What an awful experience for them. I lived in the Midwest for a few years when I was little. I had to go into the tornado cellar once because a twister was headed straight for us. It was one of the worst moments of my life. But the tornado never came. For these children, the tornado came. It has hurt their friends and families. It has ripped away their schools and homes. It has taken away their entire town. I can’t help but feel the pain of these families. And these kids.
What do we say to our kids about these tragedies?
While we may feel helpless and out of control, we have to protect our kids from these feelings. It’s okay to acknowledge sadness and fear and it’s okay to cry. But we have to be a source of strength for our kids. They need to know that they are going to be okay. We are the source of safety for them. We have to pull it together.
Tell your kids you will do everything in your power to protect them. That is your job.
Sure, this may not always be possible. But they need to know that someone else is taking the lead when it comes to their safety. They are kids. I’ve always told my kids I don’t care what it takes, how far I have to go, what I have to do, I will always protect them. No matter what. This is true. I would die for my kids. Most parents would. It’s okay for them to know that.
Limit your child’s exposure to media coverage of the events and only offer basic information.
Your children do not need to see endless, graphic descriptions of human suffering. It is not helpful to them and it is frightening and painful. If your child already knows about the disaster, then you need to talk to them about it. If they are old enough that you suspect they will find out from friends, you definitely want to sit them down and explain what happened first. But always, you want to be age-appropriate and in control of the information they receive. Watching hours of graphic and disturbing images should not be part of that. It’s hard enough to process this information as an adult. It’s nearly impossible as a child.
Ask your child if they have any questions or concerns.
You may be surprised at what your child is thinking. When the Newtown shootings happened, my sons had a lot of detailed questions about the safety of their own school. We were able to address safety issues and I could reassure them that they were in good hands. We talked about actions they could take to protect themselves but focused a lot on how their school already had significant protections in place. I also found out they had a lot of misinformation that I was able to correct. Some kids may express a desire to help the victims. If they do, assist them in their efforts. This, of course, should be again be age-appropriate. Don’t bring a 5-year-old to a disaster site to search for survivors. Something simple like a lemonade-stand fundraiser can help your child feel engaged but protect them from being too exposed to the aftermath.
Teach your kids what to do in dangerous situations.
This should be an ongoing dialogue that is tailored to the child’s age. Teach your kids the specific steps to take if they were faced with a dangerous situation. This will create a sense of empowerment. If it’s a tornado that recently shook our sense of safety, then talk about tornadoes. If you live in tornado country, then really talk about steps to take. Emphasize where to go, what to do, what the different warnings are and how to respond to them. If you don’t live in tornado country, you can still learn these steps, but focus more on the fact that tornadoes are not a threat in your area and therefore not a risk you need to worry about. Information is power and can be very reassuring. The younger the child, the less information is needed, in general. But older kids can really get a sense of relief in knowing what they would do should they face a similar situation.
We can’t avoid tragedies in life, whether it’s a personal loss or a national disaster. As parents, we do need to teach our kids how to deal with these events. While I just ache at the thought of yet another disaster and widespread human suffering, I still want my children to have a sense of safety and hope. I don’t want their hearts to break from the weight of the world before they even get a chance to take a step out in it.
All my love to the people of Oklahoma.
Have you ever lived through a disaster? How did you discuss this with your kids? What do you say about tragic events that happen to others?
- How to help children cope with tornadoes, disaster (kfor.com)
- Donate to Salvation Army for Oklahoma Tornado Relief (donate.salvationarmyusa.org)
- Donate to Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund (redcross.org/donate)