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Psychologist | Speaker | Media Expert | Workplace Consultant | Researcher

Parents, what you should – and should not – tell your kids about disasters such as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami

(by Rattan Mall, The Asian Journal)


Many parents are in a dilemma about how to explain the horrendous tragedy in Japan following a magnitude 9.0 earthquake that triggered a deadly nine-metre (30-foot) tsunami. Added to this disaster is the nuclear crisis caused by that country’s damaged nuclear power plants.
With even some adults in B.C. in a state of panic about radioactivity released into the atmosphere from a nuclear power plant in Japan reaching here, the Asian Journal asked Simon Fraser University clinical psychologist Dr. Joti Samra, who is also President of the BC Psychological Association, about what information parents should share with young kids.
Samra advised parents to “always answer any questions that children have, regardless of age, and try to answer them as truthfully and honestly as you can because, first of all, kids can pick up when you are not telling them the truth.”
She added: “But the amount of information you give them is going to depend on how old the child is – so usually less information for younger kids, generally 10 or11 and younger.
“You want to give concrete information, assure them that they are safe, limit exposure to the media. To give them a sense of control you want to go through and explain what kinds of safety mechanisms there are in a society.”
With older kids, moving into their teens, “I think the reality is that parents can speak very candidly with them.”
She also pointed out that parents had to match their answer to the developmental level of the child.
Samra elaborated: “When you are looking at kids – you know as they get to be 12, 13 or older – generally you want to be able to pretty directly answer most of their questions because by that age they are getting information in schools, they are able to go on the Internet, they are talking to other kids, and the best thing parents can do is be quite direct.
“Now when you get to kids younger than that, you kind of think of giving information on a need-to-know basis and what you want to understand is that particularly young kids are often asking questions because they are scared.
“So they will have fears that what will happen to them (and) to their parents, and your main goal as a parent is to make sure that you are reassuring your child first and foremost.
“It’s hard enough for us as adults to watch all these images in the media. Just really be aware of limiting exposure, so not having TV on all of the time and appreciating that even if a child is in another room, they can still hear … the sounds – and they really are quite horrific images and they are quite frightening.”
Samra noted: “We need to remember that as adults we are able to understand that these events are rare. We understand that, for example, Japan is at a very far distance from where we are.”
She said that that sounds like an obvious statement but we forget that young kids don’t have that same concept. So when they see something happening in the media, they believe that it must be happening somewhere close. So you actually need to describe to them how far away something is.
She added: “And they also think it’s happening non-stop, so kids they sometimes see TV again, especially the young kids, as if it’s real time … in real life.”
So parents should try and explain to younger kids that sometimes really scary things can happen, but it’s very far away, it’s very rare, and you want to give them reassurance that they are safe.
Samra said: “So what I have been saying to parents is that right now is actually a good time to have conversations with kids about safety procedures.
“For example, with young kids, making sure they know their full first name and last name, how to spell it, they know their parents’ first and last names, they have contact numbers, making sure they understand what 9-1-1 is.”
She added: “This can often be a good opportunity to describe the kinds of things that a city may have in place to deal with a disaster.
“So again, especially with younger kids, parents can explain to them: What’s a firefighter? What’s a police officer? What kinds of things does a city do? Who would they contact if they were ever in a situation where they were scared or if they couldn’t reach the parent directly?
Samra also pointed out: “And some of the parents would say well but the reality is this is happening – especially when B.C. for example had an advisory [about a tsunami] – and they’ll say well shouldn’t we just make sure we tell them that this could happen?
“And I say well, the reality is there could be a fire in your home today, you could walk outside and get in a car accident, someone could be assaulted, like all of these things could happen, but we don’t talk about them every day, right?
“So the fact that something could happen … particularly for kids, I don’t think there’s any value add to have to feel like you need to give all the information.”

Dr. Joti Samra, a registered psychologist in the province, is a clinical, consulting and research psychologist with particular expertise in workplace health issues. She presently holds the following positions:

* Adjunct Professor and Research Scientist, Consortium for Organizational Mental Healthcare (COMH), Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University
* President of the British Columbia Psychological Association
* Chair of the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Collaborative
* Speaker of LifeSpeak Inc.
* Clinical Associate, Clinical Psychology Centre, Simon Fraser University
* Adjunct Faculty, Adler School of Professional Psychology

Samra writes a weekly “Ask a Health Expert” column for the Globe & Mail which launched in November 2010.
She is a featured clinical expert in a new docu-reality series called Confessions: Animal Hoarding. The show premiered in July 2010 on Animal Planet, and has been developed by the producers of the critically acclaimed A & E series Intervention.

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