03/14/2011 05:02 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Catastrophe in Japan: Helping Your Child Comprehend and Cope

First it was this monster earthquake, followed quickly by the tsunami. Now there's the possibility of nuclear disaster. Normally the effects of a trauma are related to how far away one is. But with TV bringing intense images right into our homes 24/7, we are all affected -- our children, even more so.

The emotional effects of watching such a catastrophe can be tremendous. Children and teens can feel especially helpless when they see these images of the devastation, including homeless and injured Japanese children and orphans on the news. Kids also absorb worry and sadness from their parents, or from classmates who have family ties in Japan.

One of the difficulties experienced by parents is that they have not had adequate time to deal with their own reactions when they are called upon to deal with the impact on their children..

Emotional reactions vary in nature and severity from child to child. Their responses to a disaster are determined by age, previous experiences, temperament and personality, as well as the immediacy of the disaster to their own lives.

If you know a child who is showing signs of worry, stress or fear that may be related to the Japanese earthquake and its aftermath -- such as stomachaches, sleeplessness, bedwetting, or moodiness -- I'd like to offer some ideas about how to help kids comprehend and deal with such a catastrophe.

Tips To Help A Child Cope

  • Talk to your children and provide simple, accurate information to questions.
  • Allow them to tell and draw their stories about what happened. Drawing is cathartic and helps release some of their inside upsets.
  • Talk with your children about your own feelings. Be brief -- don't over-share.
  • Listen to what your children say, and how they say it. Try to acknowledge the underlying feelings in their words and their actions. For example: "I can see it makes you sad to think about all the people who were hurt by this earthquake and tsunami." This helps both you and your child clarify feelings.
  • Reassure your child: "We are safe. We are together. We will take care of you."
  • Be honest and don't deny the seriousness of the situation. Saying to a child, "Don't cry, everything will be okay," does not reflect how the child feels, and the truth is -- at least in the immediate future -- this is not accurate.
  • Respond to repeated questions. You may need to repeat information and reassurances many times.
  • Hold your child. Touching is especially important for children when they are distressed.
  • Spend extra time with your child when putting him or her to bed. Talk and offer assurance. Leave the night-light on if necessary.
  • Observe your child at play. Listen to what she says and how she plays. Frequently, children express feelings of fear or anger while playing with dolls, trucks or friends.
  • Have your child imagine not only how it "feels" to be safe, but what it looks like, what sounds he hears and what smells he detects. Evoking as many senses as possible will make the experience seem real.
  • Provide play, art and writing games to relieve tension. You can have him act out, draw or write out a positive outcome for the situation. For example, imagining the countries of the world coming together helping to heal and rebuild Japan.

Resolving all of the feelings related to this catastrophe may take your child (and you) quite a while. It's normal for a child to bring up the crisis long after it has happened, and when you least expect it.

How Kids Can Help Japan Right Now

  • Take action. Giving unconditionally to strangers can help young ones feel empowered. Do a penny or nickel fundraiser for Japanese children. Have your child write a one-page letter asking classmates and neighbors for their extra pennies and nickels. These can quickly add up to 50 or 100.
  • Donate lunch money for a day. Get your child to ask everyone at school to bring in a bag lunch for one day, and donate that day's lunch money to a Japanese aid organization.

How Kids Can Help When The Crisis Has Calmed, But Donations Are Still Needed:

  • Throw a Wii tournament. Set up Wii bowling in someone's big family room, and charge everyone5 to get in. The winner of the tournament gets20, and the Japanese charities get the rest.
  • Throw a skating party. Ask your local skating or roller rink if they would be willing to donate half of their profits for the day to Japanese earthquake victims. Tell them it's great PR. Get your kid and her friends to do a local public service announcement on the radio to advertise the event.
  • Kids might especially appreciate donating to UNICEF's Humanitarian Relief for Children

For more on this topic, see "Earthquakes, Floods, Terrorist Attacks, and More," in Chapter 7 of "The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success" (Perigee/Penguin).


Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D. is a child educational psychologist, an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at UCLA and author of the Los Angeles Times bestselling book, "The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success" (Perigee/Penguin). In addition to her private practice, she creates therapeutic relaxation CDs for children, teens and parents, and teaches workshops internationally on the healing power of children's imagination. You can find out more about her at