Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Nuclear Meltdowns: Talking to Kids about Natural Disasters

Posted March 16, 2011 by

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“Could a Tsunami ever happen here?”

This was said by my 8-year-old son as I was making dinner the other night. Why do kids seem to ask the toughest questions when you least expect them to?

“No, Honey. I don’t think that could ever happen where we live.” (Thinking to myself, could that ever happen here in Maine?)

“What was it like when you were in the earthquake in Japan?”

It was time to turn off the stove and sit down with Alex and really talk. My husband and I lived in Kobe, Japan for 10 years, and experienced the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. Thankfully, all our friends and family survived the quake, and our house—which we had rented with some friends—miraculously escaped damage. We were fortunate to be able to offer shelter and hot showers to the 20 or so people who came and stayed with us until they could find places to live. I told my son how kind the Japanese people were, how we all helped each other, and how hard everyone worked to restore Kobe after the Hanshin Earthquake.

Alex has seen our photos of Japan, the before and after of that ’95 disaster that, in comparison, was a much less devastating event than the one that just occurred in Sendai. It was horrific, to be sure—6,000 people died and much of the city was left in ruins. But Tsunamis were not a threat afterward, and there was no danger of a nuclear meltdown.

I remind my son again that earthquakes don’t happen where we live in Maine; that we are safe. He worries about our friends and their children in Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe. “Are they going to be okay?” he asks, wide-eyed. “Of course they are,” I say with a smile. I try to sound convincing, and offer up another silent prayer. My son asks some questions that I can’t answer, too—“What will happens with the radiation? Is it going to go everywhere?”—and I tell him that I don’t know, but I assure him that a lot of smart people are working together on the problem.  He smiles, and I give him a big hug before he goes off the play.  (Isn’t that one of the hardest things to do as a parent? No one ever tells you how often you will have to reassure your child when you yourself are worried and don’t have all the answers.)

But I also wonder, am I doing this right? Just how much should we tell our kids about tragedies and natural disasters?

The answer, I believe, depends upon the age of your child. My husband Joe and I are as honest as possible with our son, but we try hard not to give him information that will make him more anxious. We keep media exposure to a minimum. Joe has been good about flipping off the T.V. and radio when reports become too grim. (This has also preserved my sanity.)

We have found time to talk about the science of it all—the fact that the Japanese island of Honshu moved 8 feet to the west,  and that our days have shortened by a millisecond or so. That is a safer topic, and easier for Alex to understand than the loss of life and the destruction of so many houses, villages, and towns.

But I am left with my own questions. How do I make sense of all of this for an 8-year-old when I can’t make sense of it for myself?

James Lehman, my wise friend and teacher, always said to ask yourself what lesson you want your child to learn before you speak or act. And when remember that, I realize that from this terrible disaster in my second home country, I want my son to learn that life is not always going to be easy—and yes, sometimes it can even be heartbreaking. But I truly believe it’s how you respond to what happens that counts—and that’s what I’d like him to learn. I resolve to tell Alex about the many acts of selflessness and courage, the miracle rescues, the stories that are starting to emerge about the everyday people in Japan who are sacrificing so much as they work to help others. And as a family, we are going to choose some organizations—together—to donate to and raise money for.

These things feel like small gestures, but if living in Japan taught me nothing else, it taught me that many people working together can move mountains… and even restore houses, villages and towns.


The NMHA has excellent tips for parents on talking to kids about disasters and tragedies on its site.

Here are a few that may help:

  • Children need comforting and frequent reassurance that they’re safe. Make sure they get it.
  • Encourage younger children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing.
  • Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.
  • False reassurance does not help grade school age kids. Don’t say tragedies will never happen; children will know this isn’t true. Instead, say “You’re safe now and I’ll always try to protect you,” or “Adults are working very hard to make things safe.” Remind children that tragedies are very rare.
  • Children’s fears often get worse around bedtime, so you might want to stick around until the child falls asleep in order to make him or her feel protected.
  • Monitor children’s media viewing. Images of the tragedy and the damage are extremely frightening to children, so consider limiting the amount of media coverage they see.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”
  • Adolescents may turn to their friends for support. Encourage friends and families to get together and discuss the event to allay fears.


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Darah Zeledon (Edit) Report

    Excellent post, Elisabeth. It is tough when kids’ rose-colored glasses must be removed to learn about the real-world. We try to teach the kids to pray for all the unfortunate people in the world. It empowers them and they feel like they are sending a message to the Big Man upstairs on behalf of others.

    • Elisabeth Wilkins Report

      Thanks, Darah. I like how you’re teaching your kids to have empathy for others around the world. My son has decided that he wants to hold a bake sale to help the victims of the earthquake/Tsunami, and also sell some of his toys at a garage sale. I am really proud of him for coming up with these ideas. Children really surprise you at times — they are wired to give.

  2. Mainstay Ministries (Edit) Report

    Very informative Elizabeth. The earthquake and tsunami that happened in Japan is an eye-opener for all of us. Our kids should be prepared to any catastrophe. It is vital that all of us have basic knowledge to earthquake/ drills and disaster prevention plan.

  3. Melody (Edit) Report

    Thank you for this post. I know my middle child has been particularly worried about whether such tragedy could happen here. He is also 8 years old. I can only tell him that I really don’t think so and that the adults around him are there to keep him safe and to talk to if he needs to. My 10 year old want to DO something, so she has been gathering up as much money around the house and doing all the extra chores she can to take $ in to school for thier collection this week. She really wants to do more though. I’m not sure just what. I want to sit with her and research some ideas on line. The Red Cross maybe.

    • Elisabeth Wilkins Report

      Melody, thanks for your comment. It sounds like you are doing exactly the right thing with your son. I also like how proactive your daughter is being! As for who to donate to, we narrowed it down to the Red Cross and Save the Children Japan, but there are other wonderful organizations who are doing incredible work. Make sure whoever you give money to is accredited, though — sadly, there are scammers out there who will steal your money in the name of charity.

  4. Never A Dull Moment (Edit) Report

    Thank you for discussing this. My 6 yo was most struck (as his school raised money last Friday) with the stories that, after the initial devestation, some people were starving. He understands hunger (in a way he doesn’t understand drowning) and he had many questions that all seemed to focus on what he could do. As my husband and I strive to raise kids who will ask “How can I help” in the face of tragedy, I realized something important. Most kids want to help, we just need to give them the strength and tools to do it.

  5. Julie (Edit) Report

    Thanks, Beth, this was very helpful. I often think about how I should approach events like this. I did sort of the same thing you did — talked mainly about the science of it — but I don’t want to brush away the human tragedy of it entirely. I just wasn’t sure how much to mention.

  6. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor (Edit) Report

    Thanks, Brooke. I’ve been talking to a lot of parents who say they’re not sure how much — or how little — to share with their kids about the disaster in Japan. It’s definitely a tough topic. P.S. Yesterday, my son said he wanted to donate to an organization that helps children in Japan, so that’s what we are going to do.

  7. Sarah (Edit) Report

    Thank you for this thoughtful post, Elizabeth. I will share with my clients. I truly hope that your friends will come through this extreme challenge.

    • Elisabeth Wilkins Report

      Thank you, Sarah. I hope so too! And thanks for sharing this with your clients — I hope they find it helpful.



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