Hurricane Katrina: Talking to Your Children

Dr. Michael Thompson
Author/Psychologist, Advisor to PBS Parents Guide to Talking With Kids
Tuesday, September 6, 2005; 2:00 PM

Dr. Michael Thompson, bestselling author and advisor to PBS Parents Guide to Talking with Kids, was online Tuesday, Sept. 6, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss talking with your children about tragedy, particularly during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

PBS Parents "Talking with Kids."

The transcript follows.

Author and psychologist Michael Thompson specializes in work with children and families. With co-author Dan Kindlon, Thompson wrote The New York Times bestseller Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (Ballantine Books, 1999). Thompson is the author of Speaking of Boy: Answers to the Most-Asked Questions About Raising Sons (Ballantine, 2000), and co-author of Best Friends/Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. A much sought-after speaker, Thompson has appeared on Oprah, 20/20, The Today Show, The Early Show and Good Morning America. Currently Thompson is collaborating with Oregon Public Broadcasting and Powderhouse Productions on a television and Web series for national distribution on PBS, based on his book Raising Cain. Other integrated media projects with Thompson are also in development for PBS. Dr. Thompson received his B.A. from Harvard University, his Masters in Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Thompson also served as a clinical instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and was a member of the Psychology staff.


Accra, Ghana, West Africa: I think children should be brought up to understand that natural disasters may happen sometimes in life, and when they happen they should not be an avenue for trauma but rather bringing family, friends and a nation as a whole to pick up the pieces after such disasters. Thanks.

Dr. Michael Thompson: To Accra, Ghana, West Africa. I agree with you that children should be brought up to understand that natural disasters may happen in life. Certainly, there are many things that we cannot protect ourselves or our children from, even in the most "advanced, industrialized nation" in the world. We are able to protect our children from so many things in the U.S. that a natural disaster of this proportions is deeply shocking to our sense of control. We have to explain to children that some things---and that includes nature---are bigger than all of us. That said, I do believe that losing your house, losing members of your family, losing your school and your toys is inherently traumatic. I believe it traumatizes children whenever and wherever it happens. Children are never not traumatized by such events, even in a country where such things happen frequently. What children do learn---what we all learn---is resilience and how the human spirit can triumph. The children of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of the U.S. will be learning that these weeks. They will also be traumatized and will need care.


Fairfax, Va.: The human tragedies of Hurricane Katrina have been covered extensively in the news. Today The Washington Post carried a picture of an elderly man in a lawn chair who had passed. His face is clearly visible unlike other pictures of the deceased where the faces were covered. How does one answer a child's question who upon learning he is dead, asks why doesn't his family care about him. When told that his family cares very much about him, he may have been separated from his family during the floods, his family is desperately trying to find him and misses him very much, asks will there be more pictures so other families can find their Grandpa too?

Dr. Michael Thompson: Children are so direct, aren't they? At first shocked by the picture of a dead man in a chair, a child immediately sees the practical value of having his family be able to identify him. Of course there will be more questions. Children need answers and they will continue to ask them until: 1) their curiosity is satisfied, or 2) the adults become uncomfortable. The moment a child senses that adults are uncomfortable answering questions, they will stop asking; otherwise, they will continue to ask them until they have learned what they need to...for now. Later, they will ask more. Children are both scared of death and intensely curious about it.


Papillion, Nebraska: Dr. Thompson, I am wondering if the schools should become involved in helping parents talk with their children regarding this disaster and how to limit the TV time in their homes regarding this. This may become difficult for children to see in the following weeks when they start to show all the bodies that will be found and I'm sure the death toll will start counting. Any directions would be helpful.

Dr. Michael Thompson: Dear Papillion, Nebraska. I agree with you that some of the toughest pictures are still to come, pictures of dead bodies stacked up and especially pictures of dead children. Children like to believe that they are safe, and their parents can keep them safe, even from death. It isn't until they are about eight years old that they realize that death is universal, inevitable and their parents cannot protect them. A famous American psychiatrist called that realization, "The existential crisis of the eight-year-old." But soon they learn to live with the fact of death, and are comforted to know that their parents and the people who love them will try as hard as they can to keep them safe.

Schools should help to talk to children about these things because some parents will be too uncomfortable or frightened themselves. Teachers generally (not always) know how to talk to children about scary topics.


Millbrae, Calif.: What emotions are inappropriate to share with children? Should children see their parents being sad, angry and fearful?

Dr. Michael Thompson: Dear Millbrae, California. Oh yes, children need to see adult emotion so that they know it is natural and acceptable. If you do psychotherapy with children, you know how important and memorable it is for them to see an adult cry. They often mention times when they've seen someone cry; for example, "My father cried when his mother died. I'd never seen him cry 'til then." Sadness, fear and anger are normal, natural reactions to the events in New Orleans. We must not pretend they are not. Children can tell when we are hiding are true feelings and it confuses them.


Chantilly, Va.: Dr. Thompson,

For children today, having lived through seeing some horrific events (9/11, tsunami, London bombings, Katrina and much more) do you think exposure to these events at such young ages, may lead to epidemic mental health problems for that generation as they reach adulthood?

Dr. Michael Thompson: Dear Chantilly, VA. I absolutely do NOT expect that we will have epidemic mental health problems as a result of 9/11, the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. This is real life, and kids are very good at embracing real life. Children are realistic, sometimes even tough-minded. As long as they have adults around them who try to help them understand, as long as they can see authentic reactions, they can orient themselves. Of course, they'll be a bit scared for a while; it may affect their dreams and even cause them nightmares, but they will recover.

I have been in hundreds of schools since 9/11 and I do not see a generation of traumatized children. They are no more fearful or phobic than any other children I saw prior to 9/11. They do understand, however, that terrorists exist. And so do tsunamis and hurricanes.


Davidson, N.C.: Isn't a "positive approach" to emphasize that affected children either are with parents or connected with family ASAP?

Knowing that the children remaining in London, even during the WWII blitz, felt safer being with their parents than in "safety" separated from them, may help parents assure children learning of Katrina's disastrous effects that they (the parents) have made plans in case there is ever a surprise separation. (They and out of state relatives or godparents should make and exchange plans and, if possible, commit them to paper for legal purposes, just in case....)

There is a sad divide between Katrina children remaining with their parents in the worst of conditions and those taken from parents in good circumstances per a mistaken or malicious child abuse/neglect allegation. Now, those are the hardest to explain to friends and classmates.

Statement of Barbara Bryan, Davidson, North Carolina.

I chose to not have 6 o'clock news on our family TV until my children were out of elementary school. We discussed current events and read newspapers and remained totally tuned in to the world, but my three sons were not overwhelmed in the late 1970's up to the mid 1980's with blood, gore and disasters they could not fix.

In time all three became Eagle Scouts, two are attorneys and all (and spouses) have superb emotional health and an abundance of compassion and involvement in the sadness and tragic circumstances of others.

Dr. Michael Thompson: Dear Davidson, N.C. I agree with you that a child's worst fear is to be separated from his or her parents. They almost always choose to be with their parents in a dangerous situation than to be separated and taken to safety. As a result, children will empathize with and worry about the children who have been separated from their parents because of the flooding. You just have to say to them, "I know that their parents are trying very hard to find them, to get back to them. I know that because that's what I would be doing for you if we were separated by a disaster."


Arlington, Va.: Dr. Thompson,

When I was a teacher at a local school, I was lucky enough to hear you speak a few years back, so I know you have the insight to help me with my own daughters (ages 6 and 3). It is an unfortunate sign of the times that I have to check the front page of The Post for distressing photos before I put it on the breakfast table. My instinct is not to expose my young children to horrific images, such as corpses in the streets of New Orleans, or an American G.I. carrying a dead Iraqi child in his arms. I try to talk about what is going on in terms they can understand, but it seems that the pictures would be more disturbing. For the same reason I did not have the TV on all day on 9/11 so that my then-2-year-old would not see what was happening (and I no doubt spared myself some trauma as well). Does this seem to be the right approach? At what age do you think children can and should see disturbing images in the news?

Dr. Michael Thompson: Dear Arlington, VA. Thanks for your kind words. I'll try to be helpful to you. I do think we need to protect very young children from overwhelming or frightening images of death. However, in the U.S. we overprotect them. People die; they always have and always will. My daughter saw both her grandfathers lying in open coffins before their funerals when she was ten and twelve; she went to a neighbor's wake when she was eight, I believe. She was curious and awed by the fact of death.

Death in and of itself is not traumatic. it is a matter of curiosity. Children are always interested in dead beetles and dead animals. They need to know about death and understand it. What we worry about is that we cannot reassure them that we can stop death. I think that's why we don't allow them to see pictures.

I think you can protect your two-year-old because he cannot put the pictures in any perspective. He doesn't have the language (and maybe not the interest) to understand. However, I believe that your six-year-old has already thought about death and if she saw such a picture it would neither overwhelm or nor traumatize her. It would cause some feelings to arise in her and lead to a discussion with you, and I bet you would handle that discussion beautifully, because I bet you have had such conversations with other people's children who were in your class. Were you a teacher when 9/11 happened? Even though you shut off the TV in your house, didn't you have to handle the reactions of students in your class. I bet you did. I bet your hesitation with your own children is because you cannot promise them perfect protection in life.


Norfolk, Va.: Dear Dr. Thompson,

Would you suggest shading the truth from children? My 5-year-old son is asking hard questions and I've been trying to answer, but I'm never sure exactly what line to take. Should I say that "almost everyone" was rescued by the police and army? Should I say that "only a few" people lost their lives and "some" lost their homes?


Dr. Michael Thompson: Dear Norfolk, VA. Don't lie to children. Don't shade the truth. If you say that "almost everyone" was rescued and it turns out that there are 10,000 dead, as the may or New Orleans has predicted (no way to know if he is right or not) then your son might feel betrayed or lied to when he overhears on the radio that so many people have died. I don't think it is really different to say to children that "one hundred people died" or "ten thousand people died," what they need to know is that it is terribly sad, that the mayor, the police, the National Guard and the President are all trying to fix things and that your own family has sent money to help the evacuees.

What frightens children is a feeling of complete helplessness. Children need to feel that they can contribute, or that their families can contribute. Take some blankets or clothes to the Red Cross or another organization. The people along the Gulf Coast need all the help we can give them; it will also be enormously helpful for your own child. I saw how many children in schools were helped by donating money, or raising money, after 9/11. They had done something good and helpful, and it erased their profound feelings of helplessness.


Auburn, Wash.: The parents and students of our local elementary school are planning a fundraiser to help elementary students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Before we approach the children about this fundraiser, we wanted to find out how best to explain our purpose to them. Do we give them information, do we discuss hurricanes? What about the tough questions that they will ask about the dead and the kids with no parents or lost siblings? We do not want to sugar-coat it, but we also do not want to scare them by giving too much detail. Also, I believe, by giving them a specific purpose to raise money for, we put a more tangible face on the reason for this fundraiser. For instance, showing them a photo of a school in Texas where the evacuees are going and explain that some of the money will go there. Do you think this is okay or should we be more vague? Thank you for your help.

Dr. Michael Thompson: Dear Auburn, Wash. I am so glad to hear that you are planning a fundraiser. That's so helpful to the children in your school, and we should all be uniting in an effort to help. Tragedy, as my first questioner from Ghana pointed out, should bring us together as families and community.

You are right. You don't want to overwhelm children with detail, but you do have to be honest with them that there has been a tragedy---the largest natural disaster in U.S. History. It is no favor to children to pretend that things didn't happen. It happened, it was terribly destructive, and we all need to help. Children will sign on to help with that kind of real talk.


St. Paul, Minn.: I saw a CBS Evening News segment the other weekend, in which the reporter ended the segment by quoting vague, unnamed "experts" who caution that child survivors of Katrina must be encouraged to draw, write, and tell all they have experienced, and (quoting here), "...only then can the healing begin."

We have had approximately two decades of a misguided therapy for trauma survivors, in which the focus has been on assisting and even encouraging them to retell, draw, express, and reexperience traumatic events. Now more recent research is strongly suggesting that such reenactments actually put survivors at MORE risk for flashbacks and debilitating anxiety than a focus on moving past the trauma and getting on with their lives (see Gerald Rosen's recent collection of articles on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder research). That is not to say that survivors should not be free to express their stories, just that it should not be encouraged or demanded as a necessary part of healing (as so much of current pop psychology suggests).

How aware of this research are the trauma therapists dealing with Katrina, and do you think that children of this disaster are at risk for further emotional trauma by well-meaning therapists who encourage this kind of "therapy"?

Dr. Michael Thompson: Dear St. Paul, Minn. You raise a sophisticated theoretical issue. Rather than tackle the theoretical issue, which I regard as not definitively decided, I want to address your concerns on a practical level.

Of course, therapists in general have a bias toward getting people to talk about traumatic events because they are trained to talk with people, and they have experience sitting with the people who themselves have sought out therapists with whom they can discuss such events. And therapists see that it works with those people. I, personally, have seen the "talking cure" help people dispel traumatic memories. However,you correctly point out, that not everyone needs to talk and draw pictures. Not everyone needs psychotherapy. Some people need it and others do not. I agree with you that psychotherapy should not be required for everyone; nor do I think psychotherapy is the only way to heal. Having a loving family,working to alleviate suffering, praying to God, all of these can relieve trauma too. Psychotherapy is just one way among many.

Trauma and the need to talk about events, however, existed long before psychologists and psychiatrists claimed the territory. All you have to do is be present after a car accident to experience the fact that many people need to tell it again and again...and they do need someone to listen with empathy.


Washington, D.C.: How do I talk to my 7-year-old child about the issues of race as portrayed in the news? As her father was flipping channels, she inadvertently saw some images of National Guardsman with automatic weapons next to young black children. Now she's afraid to go to the mall because she thinks "the men with guns" will get her.

Dr. Michael Thompson: Dear Washington, D.C. Because your daughter identified with and reacted fearfully to seeing the young black children next to the National Guardsman, I am assuming that you are black. As a black person in a country that suffers from well-documented historical and contemporary racism, you are going to have to have many discussions with your child about race and the media. You are going to have to talk with her over and over about the way blacks are portrayed in the media, and the way whites are portrayed. You are going to have to try your best to teach your truth from media unreality. That's your job as a parent, and perhaps especially as a black parent (though I think it is every parent's job to teach about the evils of racism.)

In this case, however, you have the opportunity to say that the National Guardsmen were sent to protect communities; they were sent to help in an emergency, to help get people out of homes and to stop looting and shooting. You can explain that after a disaster, people sometimes go crazy: they steal because they're crazy from hunger (which is reasonable) or crazy with anger (which is understandable) and then just plain crazy with guns and shooting (which is terrifying and wrong.) You'll have to help her sort it all out: black and white, rational and irrational, emergency behavior from normal behavior.

Your daughter will be okay about going to a mall as long as you and her father can convey that you can tell the difference between good soldiers---both white and black--- and bad soldiers---both white and black---between safe situations and dangerous ones. You need to reassure her that you can sort it out for her right now, and that in the future she will be able to sort it out herself. Meanwhile, she is in no danger and you will keep her safe.


Ridge, N.Y.: Comment. I am a retired teacher. I have put together a kid-friendly web page for students and teachers. I added a feeling page for kids who would like to express how they feel. Writing is helpful and reading what others write is also.




Dr. Michael Thompson: Dear Ridge, N.Y.

I'm glad to hear that you have given children a way to talk about these things online. In my experience, children are often very open and articulate in their writing. Sometimes, I think, English teachers learn more than therapists do when they read the papers that children hand in with personal stories about tragedy and family. (I was a teacher before I became a psychologist.) Keep up your good work.


Washington, D.C.: Are there any popular movies that can help to explain disasters to children? I think the original Wizard of Oz -- where Dorothy is swept off to the Land of Oz by a tornado and never returns -- is an interesting example of an attempt to explain disasters to children through entertainment media.

Dr. Michael Thompson: Washington, D.C. Children are always drawn to disaster movies. I hadn't thought about "The Wizard of Oz" but you are quite right. Children also watched "The Lion King" in which the cub's father is killed in a stampede, or "Bambi" where Bambi's mother is shot by a hunter. All compelling human dramas include tragedy. We need those. Bruno Bettelheim dealt with the issue of why fairy tales are often so violent in his book, "The Uses of Enchantment."


Washington, D.C.: Although I have tried to limit the amount of Hurricane coverage I watch, much of it is unavoidable. My 13-year old daughter has received a full dose of coverage and has asked to sleep in my room for the past three or four nights. She says she is afraid for the children in New Orleans. I let her sleep with me, but need to encourage her to go back to her room. I have also tried to divert her attention by getting involved in some relief projects. What is your advice?

Dr. Michael Thompson: Dear Washington, D.C. I think you were correct to allow your daughter to sleep in your room when she was frightened. You also need to encourage her to go back. The best thing you have done is to get her involved in relief efforts. That's no a "diversion" that's real healing, the best there is.


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