How to Talk to Your Kid about Natural Disasters

by Polly Hall

It seems like every time I turn on the radio, I hear stories about natural disasters. Hurricanes and floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires. I'm thinking so much about all the people in Mexico City, in Puerto Rico, in Houston, in Santa Rosa. These kinds of natural disasters are unexpected - much like a glass, accidentally knocked off a table and cracked into a million tiny pieces, rendering the floor treacherous. It's not unimaginable to you that this kind of thing could happen, but you don't expect it at all - and you never feel prepared.

The most recent fires in California, those in Santa Rosa near a close friend of mine and now several in Southern California, are so close to home - the closest, the Skirball Fire, is only about 10 miles away from where we live and work.  Schools are closed due to air quality, and we've been mostly indoors for a few days to keep the smoke out of our lungs.

So... what do we say to our kids about natural disasters? How do we prepare them? And what should we say after, if a terrible thing does actually happen? Here are some ideas.

1. Exposure. Limit your child's exposure to images and the news. Depending on the age of your child, you might consider limiting their exposure to the news - to images in particular. As adults, we have developed contexts for understanding powerful images - children just don't have that yet. Scary stuff looks beyond scary to a kid, but your child may not be able to put the feelings and the images together in one box. Your child also might not have the words to tell you, "Hey, I'm super scared of that, what is that, are we going to be safe, what can we do to get ready or help?"

If you do share images with your child, "look for the helpers," as Mister Rogers suggests. You don't have to spin the news as positive - but you can help your child figure out what to do with all the new input he is receiving. What is the problem in this photograph / video? How are people feeling? Who is working on solving the problem? Wait patiently for your child's answers and offer your own.


2. Information. Determine what information your kid has about the event and supply them with some age-appropriate details.  Make sure they know something - that's the only control they can possibly have over an uncontrollable thing.  Prepare them, but don't over-frighten them. Use easy-to-understand language. Stop at the end of sentences, allow some long pauses - listen to their questions and answer them and let them know you appreciate their asking. My 3.5-year-old knows that there are scary fires somewhat close to us. They aren't so close that we can see or feel them, but we can see the smoke and some ashes. Many firefighters are working very hard to contain the fire. Right now we are safe and our house is safe. Daddy and I have a plan to keep our family safe. 

In that same vein, remember to be careful about your conversations. Kids are always within earshot, even when you think they aren't. I'm not saying you should completely censor yourself, and I'm not saying that you shouldn't let your kids know what's going on in the world. I'm just saying - do it with purpose. For children, accidental information can become fear, not data.

3. Talk.  Talk about what happened. Stories help us process.  You may know the Judaic (Old Testament) story of a great flood - animals boarding Noah's Ark two-by-two, the dove with the olive branch and the rainbow symbolizing hope. But did you know that over 500 cultures all over the world share flood stories of one kind or another? They are all a little bit different - one of them even involves a giant turtle - but share many similarities.


In our most recent episode of our family podcast Ear Snacks, we interviewed Nina Silver, Head of Noah's Ark and Family Programs at the Skirball Cultural Center about that wonderful museum and the flood stories it celebrates. One great thing she said is that stories about floods are SO BIG that their devastation is visible and they often require rallying the whole community - but challenges can come in all different shapes and sizes. Talking about big problems helps us understand smaller ones, and knowing that others have faced challenges helps us figure out how to get through whichever thing we are facing.

I also asked Nina why she thinks so many different kinds of people have flood stories in common. I thought her answer was really beautiful.

"I think that when we go through a hard time that it helps us understand it better when we tell each other stories about the hard time. Because none if us is alone, we are all in it together. And nothing really happens to a person that hasn't happened to a person that has come before them. And hearing the stories of the people who came before us helps us understand where we are now and where we're going." - Nina Silver, Head of Noah's Ark and Family Programming at the Skirball Cultural Center

NOTE: The Skirball is directly in the advisory area of the Skirball Fire, one of the four fires surrounding Los Angeles. We are keeping Nina, her wonderful staff and the museum in our thoughts.

4. Validate. If your child offers to share her feelings, hear her. Thank her for sharing and let her know you understand, if possible without minimizing how she feels. If your child shares a deep, scared feeling, that's okay. Even if she is safe, even if others are not. She is doing the hard work of understanding a big scary thing - let her do that work and give her credit for doing it. A quick side note to also be supportive during play - play is often how kids process new parts of the world. If something comes up in play that makes you uncomfortable, rather than dismiss it, see it as an opportunity to work through issues with your child.

5. Be Honest. Answer any questions your child has in an age-appropriate way. Sometimes it feels scary to tell kids the truth, but the moment you do it you will feel a weight lifted from you - if you perpetuate something false, that weight will only grow heavier. If you don't have the answers, that's okay - you can look them up together, or you can tell your child - "that's a great question and I don't have the answer. I'll find out that information and bring it back to share with you."

5. Comfort. Let your child know that you will take care of him. Give hugs and cuddles. Know that he may be feeling a lot but showing it to you without using words. This is when your child needs you most. He needs to know that he is safe with you. Set limits but give love.

6. Focus on Safety. Sometimes the scariest part of a natural disaster (for both parents and kids) is not knowing what to do.  Step back from the unknown, focus on concrete actions and behaviors your family has done and will do to stay safe.  In our case, we're staying inside with the windows closed to avoid risks related to air quality.  We're monitoring the news regarding evacuation advisories.  We're checking on our neighbors, sharing advice about preparations, sharing stories about weathering events like this before.

And if you haven't just experienced a natural disaster but are worried about one:

7. Talk about it, BEFORE. We have no control over natural disasters - but they keep coming at us. So let's get as ready as we can for the next one. If your child is of school age, chances are he or she has been in a drill of some sort - earthquake, fire or tornado. That's a great place to start. "Remember when you had an earthquake drill at school? Tell me about it. Who gave the instructions? Was there a sound or flashing light that let you know? Did you have to move your body somewhere? How did you have to stand or sit? I'm so glad that you were learning how to be safe at school. Let's do some things at home together also."

You can give your child more, age-appropriate information about the kind of natural disaster that’s most likely to strike your region. and let your kid know — if something bad happens, it might be hard. Something might change, things might look different than they did before — kind of like what Paul says about the art of kintsugi. We will do the best we can keep each other safe, repair what’s broken and love each other.

Here are some additional resources that might help:

  • Sesame Street offers a great resource for parents, including for support after an emergency. There are facts, videos for kids and great resources guides about Earthquakes, Fire, Flood, Hurricane, Tornadoes and Winter Storms. They say everything I've said but way, way better.
  • This article from Zero to Three lays out coping strategies and lets you know what to watch for in your child's behavior. One of my favorite tips here is to get some exercise - one hard part of a natural disaster might be being stuck inside. Kids are used to be able to get their energy out, and even if they are provided for in the best way indoors they may go a little nuts - physically and emotionally. Come up with some indoor movement activities that can help burn off a little steam.
  • If you are looking for a little more help guiding conversations with your child, this article is a great resource.
  • There's always Ear Snacks, our podcast for kids. We're tackling the issues central to childhood and growing up in every episode - just with a sideways approach that's sometimes fun, sometimes musical, sometimes thoughtful and always supportive. In our episode about Cracks, we talk with a seismologist about Earthquakes and how things crack - and in part two we wonder, what can you do after something breaks? We talk about the art of Kintsugi as well as the importance of sharing stories after something bad happens. Finally, in our Rain episode we address the fundamental uncertainties in life with the song,  "How Can You Tell if it's Going to Rain?"
  • For more about Kintsugi and how the Pustelnik’s practice their art as a family, visit their website.