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In Disaster's Wake

Here’s how to help your child regain her sense of security when current events trigger hidden fears.

On September 11, 2001, my young daughter was worried. Although her birthparents lived in China--thousands of miles from the World Trade Center--she was afraid they'd died in the attack. Similarly, when an earthquake devastated Haiti's capital in January, school-aged children may have worried that their birthparents' homes had been destroyed, even if they were born in another country.

By the time they turn six, adopted children know they have birthparents somewhere in the world, as well as having an adoptive family. Vagueness about who these people are--and where they live--can lead to frightening thoughts when wars or disasters strike. A young child may think that Iraq is a subway stop or bus ride away, or that hurricanes can destroy homes from New York to California in a few hours. Six- to eight-year-olds are trying to make sense of the world, and they often imagine that what they hear about in the news could happen to them. The immediacy of images on television makes disasters seem even more threatening, as if they might take place in the next town.

Slow News Days
Parents shouldn’t (and can’t) shelter their child from any frightening information. But minimizing his exposure to scary news can increase his sense of security.

>> Turn off the television or radio, and tune in when he’s in bed or at school.

>> Limit his access to newspapers.

>> Avoid discussing the disaster with other adults when your child is in the room.

>> Watch for signs that he may be more worried than his questions—or lack of questions—reveal: fear of sleeping alone (or other new or unusual fears), lack of appetite, and so on.

Experiences from our children’s pasts prove that big, scary changes do happen. Their world has already been shaken, so, when wars or natural disasters occur, they may think, or even ask: “Who will take care of me in an emergency?” or “What if I lose you, just as I lost my first parents?”

Reassuring Responses
Grade-schoolers are old enough to wonder about world events but young enough to be confused. When they ask questions, listen carefully and answer in three ways.

1. Offer a concrete solution, if possible.
If your child is worried about the events in Iraq, you could say, “Iraq is so far away that we can’t take a bus, car, or train to get there. Also, Iraq is nowhere near your birthmother’s home, so I’m sure she’s safe, as well.”

2. Acknowledge your child’s feelings, either directly or with an “I wonder” statement.
For example, you might say, “I know this earthquake (or hurricane) seems pretty scary to you. I wonder if you’re worried about whether our family is safe or whether your birthparents are OK.”

3. Let your child know that you, or another trusted adult, will care for him in an emergency.
Explain that most disasters are not complete surprises and that your family will be prepared if something happens. Reassure your child that you will always look after him and provide for his safety.

Patty Cogen, Ed.D., is a family therapist in Seattle and the author of Parenting Internationally Adopted Children (Harvard Common Press).

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