Explaining World Tragedy to Children
By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
Your 6 year old has just seen video of real children being washed out to sea. Your teen sits transfixed
watching images of people clinging to trees, mothers wailing as they discover dead children in an endless
line of unclaimed bodies, and babies crying hysterically for their mothers. At the dinner table your 5th
grader asks, 'Can anything like that happen to us, dad?'
How is a parent to respond? What should you say? What should you do? How do you deal with your child’s
fears without increasing them? Is it possible to reassure your child at a time when you, yourself, are
horrified by the images of intense pain and grief you see in the hearts and on the faces of parents half
way around the world?
Yes, you are filled with empathy for the survivors who have lost loved ones, homes, and jobs. Yes, you
are extremely grateful that your children are safe in your comfortable home as the horrific images
continue to flow onto your television screen. And yes, you can use this incredibly tragic situation to
help your children learn lessons of love, compassion, and of the indestructible nature of the human spirit.
Once children have seen the images of tragedy and suffering it is necessary to debrief it with them. The
sooner the better. By debriefing, we mean answering their questions, providing information, asking questions,
and reflecting their feelings.
Provide the scientific information for which they are asking. Tell your children in age appropriate language
what you know about how nature can create a tidal wave, tornado, hurricane, volcanic eruption or whatever
the tragedy might be. Keep this part factual. You can even use books or magazines to assist you in providing
Tell your children the effects of the natural disaster. Talk about the destruction that was created as a
result of nature’s fury. This is a good time to make the connection between cause and effect. Limit what
you say to what was seen on TV or directly questioned by your children. Too much information at this point
can increase their fright and worry. The goal here is to be brief, accurate, and provide them with the
specific information for which they are looking. If you fail to give them information, if you fail to
debrief, children’s brains will fill in the blanks. Better to fill in those gaps yourself with factual
knowledge than to have your children fill them with their imaginations.
Concentrate on feelings. Your children will be seeing a wide variety of feelings expressed on TV. They
will see sadness, panic, grief, relief, joy, depression, frustration and desperation, among others. In
addition, they will personally be full of unexpressed and often unrecognized feelings.
When you sense they are feeling empathy, sadness, or pain, say so. Tell them, 'You seem deeply saddened
about this,' or 'You sound scared and frightened that this might happen to us.' Children are starving for
feeling recognition and this is a great time to supply it.
When strong emotion is shown on TV, honor it by talking about it. Mention the extreme sadness and grief
that is shown there. Refrain from being an adult who ignores the grief of others and refuses to acknowledge
it. Do not treat hurting human beings like they are invisible. Talk about your feelings. Tell your children
about the sympathy, empathy, and pain you feel for the loss of others. Allow your children to hear and see
you express feelings. In so doing, you are helping them acquire a feeling vocabulary that they can use
their entire lives.
When you communicate your feelings and honor the feelings of your children for people around the world,
you teach them important lessons about the human condition. You help them appreciate how we are all more
alike than different. You help them see that we are all connected, no matter how distant we seem. You help
them learn we are all one.
As you go through this debriefing process, encourage your children look for the helpers. Helpers always
come. There are always people who step forth to help. In the case of a major tragedy there will be many
helpers, playing out a variety of roles. Point them out to your children. When small problems occur in
their own lives they will have learned to look for the helpers. There are helpers at school, on the
playground, in the mall, and on the highway when our car breaks down. Learn to look for helpers and they
will be more likely to show up when you need them.
Discuss with your children how you as a family can be helpers during this tragedy. Perhaps you can send
money, give blood, say prayers, send love, or call the Red Cross to see what kinds of items can be donated.
Choose one or more ways to be helpers as a family and allow your children to help implement that strategy
with you. Pray together. Let them observe as you give blood. Take them shopping for the toiletry items
needed by the Red Cross. Let them help you address the envelope that sends the check. Get them involved
in the process of being a helper. Let them see and be love in action.
Our deepest sympathies and heartfelt prayers go out to the families directly affected by the most recent
tsunami. The scope and depth of the pain and heartache of catastrophic tragedies like this are not
measurable. Yet, those same horrific events can be used for good if we help our children learn about
feelings, looking for the helpers, appreciating the connectedness of all human beings, and the beauty of
one heart reaching out to another across the continents. We can help them learn that around the world is a
long way away and still very much a part of our neighborhood.
Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the authors of 'The 10 Commitments: Parenting with Purpose,' (available
from Personal Power Press at toll free 877-360-1477, amazon.com, and bookstores everywhere). They also
publish a FREE email newsletter for parents. Subscribe to it at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit
and www.thomashaller.com, and