Kids & natural disasters
A few days after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I found myself racing to grab the newspaper before my three daughters could see the blaring headlines about a possible nuclear disaster. But I quickly realized that I couldn’t shield them from this crisis; in fact, many of their friends had already been talking about it at school. Over the next couple of days, my husband and I fielded a barrage of questions. What is radiation? How would it make you sick? Why were they warning people in the affected region to stay indoors and close their windows?
Suddenly, our 11-year-old twins were using new words like “meltdown” and “Chernobyl” and our 7-year-old was struggling to understand the idea of nuclear power. They saw pictures of people being scanned for radiation, and worried about the brave souls left behind to repair the disintegrating reactors. My husband and I began to see our own anxieties traced onto their faces, and we weren’t initially clear on how to reassure them.
We then realized that our first step was to tell the girls that the nuclear crisis in Japan would not directly affect them, which is a natural concern for kids. They may have thought that clouds of radiation would drift over Montreal. So we let them know that people farther away from a reactor are unlikely to be hurt by the radiation. We also explained that after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, a 30 km exclusion zone was established around the site, but people in the surrounding area went on with their lives. (Although there have been documented medical consequences for people in communities outside the zone, we chose not to discuss that with our kids — too much detail.) And we did tell them that due to advances in medical treatment, the people in Japan who may get sick would have access to excellent healthcare.
It’s important for parents to figure out what a child is feeling or what is causing him or her to worry. Don’t presume to know. Once your child tells you, then you can respond accordingly.
Of course, how you talk to children about difficult events depends a great deal on their ages and temperaments. We have a bright and curious 7-year-old daughter, but we felt she didn’t need to be given as much information as her older sisters. So we provided quite a bit less detail in our explanation of the crisis. Children under the age of 7 need to hear that they are safe and that adults will take care of them. If they do ask questions, provide basic answers with minor details.
A child’s personality — easy going, worried, etc. — will also determine how they will react to such events. One of our twins seemed to take the whole thing in stride and moved on to other things, while her sister has used the crisis as an opportunity to look up a lot of information on atomic energy.
Parents of older kids can use the questions and worries as jumping off points for family discussions. My husband and I realized we needed to inform ourselves so we could provide the right answers for our children, and hopefully offer them some reassurance. Thanks to the Internet, learning about things like the cooling systems of nuclear reactors is easier than ever. Then, when discussions that occur in classrooms or between friends trickle back home, we are able to correct misinformation, provide additional context, or direct our kids to helpful resources.
Finally, any time a crisis or tragedy on this scale captures the world’s attention, an important way to help children is to encourage them to donate to relief efforts. In contributing even a small portion of their allowance or savings, they may feel some small sense of control over a difficult situation. And it may soothe them to know that when bad things happen, the world responds with care, concern and aid.
This last bit of advice is clearly far more constructive than trying to shield them from newspaper headlines! As our children get older, it’s important to gradually introduce them to the critical issues facing our communities, so that they will be prepared to one day advocate for change or make the right choices in difficult situations.
Learn about nuclear power
Developed by a pediatrician, this series of easy-to-read explanations, videos and games illuminates complex scientific issues for kids ages 10 and up. The section on nuclear energy addresses everything from powering our homes to nuclear medicine.
How Stuff Works
Run by the Discovery Company, this site offers kids ages 11 and up a fascinating glimpse at how nuclear reactors work, with specific information about what is going on in the Fukushima reactor, and a frank discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear energy.
Teens and those with an appreciation of science will like this site, created by a group of physicists from the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Peer-reviewed and unrelated to the nuclear power industry, they offer a readable explanation of nuclear power.