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Ken Haller, MD

With natural disasters from floods to tornadoes dominating news coverage this year, it’s to be expected that some adults have heightened anxiety. Child development experts say kids worry too, and suggest that parents stay alert to their children’s concerns and take steps to reassure them.

Cardinal Glennon pediatrician Ken Haller, MD, says some parents may wisely limit exposure by younger children to news coverage of natural events, but he adds that children often are exposed to media whether parents control it or not.

“Many kids today have their Facebook pages; most have cell phones; they’ll see Tweets; they talk to their friends in school, so whether fortunate or not, kids are exposed to media and hear about events,” Dr. Haller says.

Older children tend to adjust to concerns about natural disasters – at least those that occur in other places – but younger ones, Dr. Haller says, lack coping skills and perspective, and sometimes need reassurance from Mom and Dad.

Very young children – those three and under – probably are not aware of disaster events, Dr. Haller says, but by about age five or six and those in the early grade school years can find hearing about natural events to be very unsettling.

Dr. Haller continues that proximity to a disaster has bearing on how much fear it may cause children. In Missouri, for example, children in the state may be more affected by news coverage of the tornado in Joplin than by news reports of flooding in Mississippi.

But this year’s long string of natural disasters has been of concern to everyone, he notes. The issue for younger kids, Dr. Haller says, is their own safety and that of mom and dad.

“Kids worry, ‘Will this happen to me?’ and ‘Will it happen to my parents?’” Dr. Haller says. “Kids see news reports and worry that if something happens, will anyone be there to take care of them.”

Dr. Haller says that even if a child doesn’t bring up concerns, the best way to find out what they are thinking is to ask. With older children, he suggests giving reassurance with basic facts – such as stating that tornadoes rarely strike most areas.

When talking with younger children, Dr. Haller advises less detail – even being a little unrealistic for the sake of the child. “Parents need to be very definitive with younger children – even to the point of being a little unrealistic. It’s important for kids to feel they are in a safe, secure place.

“So, say: ‘I’m going to be here. I’m going to take care of you. I’m going to make sure nothing bad happens.’ That’s what a young child needs. They need absolute reassurance.”

Dr. Haller adds that in some situations, it’s okay for the parent to reveal to children that the parent is frightened. This reassures the child that there is nothing wrong with them, just because they are a little nervous.

But whenever possible, the parent who is frightened should try to demonstrate steps the family can take to reduce their risk, and to use events – such as severe weather alerts – to review safety preparedness.

“Sometimes it’s okay to let the child know this scares the parent too, but to show that your response to being scared is not just sit there and get upset, but to do something about it.”

Dr. Haller suggest that regarding tornadoes, if there is a child who is old enough to be home alone, to review with the child where he or she should take shelter in the event of a tornado warning siren.

 “Say to the child, ‘it scares me a bit too, but what we’ll do is go into the basement because that’s the safest place in the house, and if I’m not here and you hear a siren, it’s important for you to go there yourself.’ ”

Natural disasters can be a time for teaching children about helping others.  Parents can begin by modeling altruistic behavior, such as making a contribution or helping with a food or clothing collection. Dr. Haller suggests asking the children for their own ideas about how they as kids might help.

Children might come up with ideas –with a little encouragement and modeling by the parents – such as donating part of their allowance, Dr. Haller says.

“As terrible a thing as a natural disaster is, you can get kids from the point of feeling very scared to a place where they feel there’s nothing positive to a point where they feel they can do something to make things better for other people,” Dr. Haller says.

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