How can I explain scary events and tragedies to my toddler?

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Photo by DBduo Photography, used under Creative Commons license.

My family and I live in Colorado — right in the middle of the Waldo Canyon fire that's been in the news recently. We're safe and so are most of our friends, but we're facing impending evacuation and have no idea what's going to happen next.

I'm wondering: how do I explain to my two-year-old what's going on without scaring her? I want to be upfront and explain all of a sudden changes and worry she's seeing us experience, but I don't want to freak her out or have her think that this kind of thing will happen every day. — Lady Phenix

  1. I worked a a while with kids who had experienced trauma – either personally or on a larger scale, so I'm glad to see something like this posted! I guess, just from my background, what I'd suggest is this:

    1.) Let your kid feel however they want. This to me is the most important. If your child is scared and wants to cry, wants to be alone, wants to be physically close to you, LET THEM. Try to not say stuff like "there's no reason to be afraid/sad/upset." Because this isn't true – a natural disaster is scary/sad/upsetting. And kids have different ways of responding to this stuff. Some of them will cry and latch on to you and stuff; others will want to go off alone or something like that. Let them deal with it in their appropriate way. If they want to be alone, let them know that you're there for them, but let them have that space for a while.

    2.) Be honest. Kids can tell when they're being lied to. Lots of parents will try to lie or come up with stories to explain stuff, and that can backfire. You can do it in an age-appropriate way, though.

    3.) Prepare them. If things like evacuations might happen, tell them beforehand if possible. Tell them that they may have to leave the house for a little bit, but that hopefully, they can come home. Lots of kids will want to pack things important to them – stuffed animals, games, etc. Let them do this, since it can give them a feeling of control – and that sense is critical when everything else seems to be out of control. But preparation is key – let them know if something might happen.

    I hope this stuff helps. Don't focus so much on making sure she doesn't "freak out," because you really shouldn't expect anybody to remain totally calm in the fact of something like this. Focus on being prepared and honest with her and also, respecting her feelings and reactions. And you'll be alright.

    22 agree
  2. Best approach I've heard: http://www.askmoxie.org/2011/09/talking-about-911.html#comments

    "Look for the helpers. The day it happened, we were already thinking about Mister Rogers, and his saying that "when bad things happen, look for the helpers." Good people will always help. Think about how many people rushed in to help, gave blood, looked for people, put up fliers, volunteered in zillions of ways, prayed, cried, listened. Think about how many of us are still helping now. Yes, bad people do bad things, but good people pick up the pieces and help."

    Obviously changing it to "sometimes bad and scary things happen, but good people pick up the pieces and help."

    4 agree
  3. Last week we were hit with the "derecho" along with a good part of the east. It hit so fast there really as no time to prepare. I was outside with my in laws and my 2 year old. My husband was out of town for the weekend. It had been hot and muggy all day, so the slightly breeze that had started was a relief. But then I noticed that the sky was a dark grayish purple. My father in law suggested we head inside, so we gathered up the six kids, and by the time we were inside it was hitting us full force. We had about two minutes warning. The swings wet was the first to go, falling right where we had been three minutes before. The power went out and the storm lasted about an hour and a half, we gathered the kids up in the centere of the house and lit a camping lantern. The wind was so strong I was afraid the windows wouldn't hold. We did. The best we could to keep the kids (ages2-8) calm, and waited it out. I was scary. I had never seen a storm that was so strong, or so fast, but I knew that if I showed my fear it would be all the worse for the kids. I was thankful to be at my in laws instead of my own home (a trailer). Once the storm ended we got the kids settled for bed, told a few storied about camping and told them they could all camp together that night. after they were asleep, I went to assess the damage. I couldn't believe how bad things looked. We were lucky though, despite losing several large trees and numerous branches the only thing that was actually ruined was the swing set. the houses were fine the cars were not damaged and all our friends and family were safe. The next morning my two year old exclaimed "Mommy! My trees fell down!" but besides that it was just another day to her. She was upset that she couldn't swing or swim (her kiddie pool blew away- who knows where that got to) and didn't really understand why her light wouldn't turn on. But it really didn't seem to bother her that much. Wr were with out power for four more days, and she adjusted very well. She has told several people since about her trees falling down but she isn't traumatized. She even saw the clean up as an opportunity to help Daddy, and gathered up small sticks and branches.

    So I realize this is long and drawn out, but my point is that despite the scariness of that storm for us, my little one took it as just another day, if she had questions I answered them, and assured her that we were safe even though the lights were broken. In your situation, with a possible evacuation, I would just explain that you might go away for a few days but that you would take his/her special things with you. I wouldn't make a big deal of it. If you become visibly anxious then he/she will too. I hope that helps, and tht you and your family are safe!

    2 agree
  4. Maybe we were just weird, but when tornadoes were a threat one summer we took it as a chance to be prepared and be adventurers. Even though it was scary, getting blankets, flashlights, and our things all assembled gave us power and made us feel brave like characters in stories. Once we were in a motel in Kansas when a massive storm hit. Three tornadoes came of it, but all missed us. We were very scared that time, but building a little barricade with the beds and watching the news helped. Our dad was very honest about the weather, comforted us, and said that if anything happened we would get to safety.

    I guess my point is that honesty is good. Reassure them that yes some scary things are happening, but you are taking action to be safe.

    • Totally not weird! I live in Alabama, and every spring we get our "tornado weather stuff" together — flashlights, blankets, etc. This past season was the first that our 3 year old really understood that tornadoes can be very dangerous, and he was very much a part of amassing stuff, watching the news, etc.

  5. This isn't exactly what you were asking, but it's in a similar vein. For slightly older children there's a great section on the Newsround (the main children's news programme over here) website called 'It's OK to be upset by the news'.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/13865002

    To be honest, I often think putting something like this on the grown up news sites wouldn't be the worst idea.

    3 agree
  6. This is giving me some really good ideas! Thank you everyone. We are now at 100% containment here and everything is slowly returning to normal.

    4 agree
    • Glad y'all are ok! I'm in Denver and was out of the country during that fire. It was making international news and it killed me not to be able to check on people in the Springs. Fingers crossed for an uneventful rest of the summer!

      1 agrees
  7. Try to talk about it to them using situations/senarios that they have prior experience with.
    The 3 yr old I nanny for was VERY upset that his Dad had to go to hospital tonight so I sat with him and talked about hospital bracelets because I had had one on a few weeks ago and when he saw mine he remembered wearing one himself when he went to hospital once. We talked about how Dad would have a hospital bracelet on with his name and that he would be ok because both of us had been ok.

    In terms of the wildfires you could talk about firefighters and people who help us.
    With the threat of evacuation you could have them help by packing a bag of things that are important to them.
    Although I know it is nowhere near as serious as the situation that you are in, The 2 and 3yr old coped REALLY well with a 5 day power outage. and made fun of the bad situation by helping me get wood for the fire in the house, playing with flashlights, and dressing up in winter hats indoors.

    I wish the best for you in this situation and hope it all turns out ok

  8. I second (and third and fourth) the idea of getting the kid prepared ahead of time. We recently had to have one of our dogs eyes taken out. Because we had been battling the injury for awhile, we were able to get the 5yo grandbaby used to the idea before it happened. We explained that his eye hurt and he would feel so much better when it was taken out. The first time she saw him after the surgery she freaked out (I think the stitches scared her) but only for a second because I was able to remind her that he was feeling better (which she could also see just from how he was up and at 'em again). I think if we hadn't prepared her before hand she would have been much more of a mess. In fact, we weren't sure we were going to have to do the surgery but we still told her it *might* happen just so she'd be ready. This won't work obviously with an unexpected disaster, but for something like possible evacuation it should be helpful. I also would have the kid help get themselves prepared. Have them help you pack a bag and pick out (1, 2, however many) toys that they can bring. Keep it somewhere when the little one can grab it if needed. I've always believed the more involved a kid is in what's going on, the less confused/upset/freaked they will feel.

    1 agrees

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