The earthquake and fires in Santa Barbara this week brought the impact of natural disasters to the forefront of our collective conscience. A common question is how to talk to children about natural disasters.

Some parents often hope that if they can shield a child from the morning newspapers and television news, the child may not have to learn about how cruel Mother Nature can be. However, not talking about a fire or an earthquake may not be best for the child.

Today it is simply not possible to keep information about natural disasters from most school-age children. Children will hear about the event in school, catch their friends talking about it, or see parts of the story on television or the Internet. Children will acquire bits and pieces of information about a disaster or an imminent risk that could threaten them, and then weave together the rest of the story using their imagination. Often times they will develop a distorted picture of an event or potential event that can lead to a great deal of anxiety.

By starting a discussion about a disaster or an imminent risk of one, parents can control the type and amount of information they offer a child. Adults can model a sense of calmness and empathy and gauge the child’s level of comfort with the information. They can clarify any misinformation a child may have heard about a disaster or an immanent risk they face. Adults can support a child by scaffolding the discussion to address the child’s need to know specifically how the information impacts on them.

In the face of a natural disaster, children can feel powerless. Talking about and practicing your family fire evacuation plan, and checking on your earthquake kit and reviewing where all the emergency numbers are can make children feel empowered. Some children may also benefit from feeling they are directly helping those impacted by a disaster. Working with a club at school to raise money to support disaster relief efforts, writing letters to the classes of the affected schools, or visiting a Direct Relief International or Red Cross center to volunteer or making a donation can make a child feel empowered.

Specific guidelines to consider when you open a discussion about a natural disaster or an imminent risk of a natural disaster follow:

» Begin a discussion about the event at time when a child will be receptive. Avoid this type of discussion prior to bedtime or departure for school. These are times of separation from parents, and it is important to monitor the child’s response to the information.

» Model a sense of calmness when you talk about the event.

» Start by asking the child if he or she has heard about the event and what they have heard. Listen to what the child tells you.

» Correct any misinformation the child may have and ask if they have any questions. Address the question you can.

» Don’t feel the need to answer all questions. It is OK to say that you don’t know the answers to some questions.

» If the child has no information about the disaster, provide simple information that is tailored to their cognitive level and temperament.

» Talk to the child about what your family does to prepare for a disaster. Review your family disaster plan, and use it as an opportunity to practice and refine it.

» Carefully control television, newspaper and radio access to ensure an adult is present when information about a disaster may be presented. Young children may think that the repeated footage of a single disaster actually represents multiple disaster events.

» Try to limit Internet usage to a central family location so that you can explain disaster-related images and information children see and observe any negative reactions they may experience.

» Remove digital devices from a child’s bedroom at night to avoid the possibility he or she may see disturbing images or information about the disaster that will impact negatively on their sleep.

» If your child is interested, support him or her in helping the victims of a disaster. Visit the Direct Relief International or Red Cross websites to learn about needs of victims.

» Be aware of your child’s reaction to the discussion. Some children may tend to ruminate on the subject and may need extra support.

» If your child seems to be overly concerned about the disaster or his or her own safety, starts experiencing difficulty sleeping or shows other signs of distress, seek help from a professional.

— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.