parenting styles

How to talk to kids about Typhoon Haiyan age by age

Nov. 10, 2013 at 11:38 PM ET

Talking to Kids About Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines
Jeoffrey Maitem/Getty Images News /
Talking to Kids About Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines

As many as 10,000 people are feared dead in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. As parents struggle to process the news, it's hard to know what to say to kids about this tragic event. Here's help from Russell T. Jones, Ph.D., director of the Stress and Coping Lab at Virginia Tech.

Shield them: Very young children don't need to be informed about disturbing events, says Dr. Jones. If possible, help kids avoid the news by turning off the TV and watching what you say to other adults in their presence. 

Stress that they're safe: If kids do find out about the typhoon or someone they know was affected, keep your answers to their questions simple without revealing too many details. It's also important to reassure them: Tell them that you and other grown-ups are working to help keep them safe. 

Stick to the routine:
There's comfort in normalcy, so try to continue whatever your kids would usually be doing, even if it feels weird to toss a ball in the backyard when you know there are people suffering.

Talk about why storms happen. Fear of thunder and lightning is near universal among small kids. But talking about why weather occurs can help take some of the unknown out of the equation.

Elementary School
Be honest: Kids this age may hear about it from friends, the news or overhear an adult conversation. Instead of offering up too many details, wait for your kids ask questions or start by asking what they've heard. "Use that as a window to find out what they already know and share information from there," says Dr. Jones. Keep answers simple and straight-forward so kids don't get overwhelmed.

Emphasize the good over the bad:
There's no denying it to this age group—sometimes bad things happen. However, do your best to stress that there are many people that help, from bystanders to first responders.

Talk about your own feelings:
While you don't want to upset your kids, sharing how you feel can help your kids talk about their own emotions. 

Create a disaster emergency plan and kit. Talk through what you'll do as a family if there's a severe weather alert. Pack a box with flashlights, snacks, games and water so you're ready if you ever need to prepare for an emergency.

Find out how to help. Kids feel empowered when there's something they can do to help. Help them donate whatever's needed, or encourage them to give their own money.

Middle and High School
Keep yourself informed: Teenagers are going to have more complex questions, but that doesn't mean that you need to have all the answers, says Dr. Jones. What's really important is that you keep the lines of communication open.

Watch news supervised: By 11 or 12, some kids may have the coping skills to watch the news, says Dr. Jones. However, make sure you sit with them so you can answer questions or turn off the TV if images are graphic.

Keep tabs on their social media use: 
Although social media can be a great tool for staying connected, it isn't always the best source for getting information. Make sure your child is getting age-appropriate news from reliable sources.

Be indirect: Older kids may have a hard time opening up about a difficult situation. Sometimes it's easier to broach the subject with a more casual inquiry, such as: "Were kids talking about this at school?"

Know your kid: You are the best judge of what your kids can handle. If a child has previously been exposed to a trauma, an upsetting event like a natural disaster can be a trigger for those feelings coming up again, says Dr. Jones. Keep an eye out for signs of stress, like nightmares, trouble sleeping, crying or other signs of anxiety.

Mom of two Sasha Emmons is a writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.