Tens of thousands dead. Communities destroyed. Food and medical supplies running out. Survivors desperate and suffering: The devastating news continues to pour forth from the Philippines, and horrific accounts and images from Typhoon Haiyan leave us overwhelmed and shattered. How can we possibly address such a terrible topic with our innocent children?
Our first instinct might be to shield our children - to turn off the news, hide the papers, close the websites, and spare them the knowledge of Typhoon Haiyan. But once our children reach a certain age, we cease to be their only sources of information. Whether it's a lesson at school, a comment by a friend, a Google alert on the Internet, even a television at a pizzeria, our kids are likely to encounter the aftermath of Haiyan - and to look to us for comfort, explanation, and reassurance.
And Judaism reminds us that this is the way it should be. Think of the Four Sons at the Passover Seder - rather than glossing over the brutality and enslavement experienced by our ancestors in Egypt, we take pains to ensure that every generation, every child, hears and learns and understands. We do not deny that terrible things happen, that people suffer, that life can bring grief and pain. Nor do we silence our children's queries or dismiss their curiosity - instead, we encourage them to ask and to question.
But that means we need to be prepared for some very difficult discussions. To help guide these conversations, I offer what I call "The Five As."
ASK. Let your child lead the way. Open the discussion by asking questions: “What have you seen or heard about what is happening in the Philippines?” “What questions do you have?” “How does the news make you feel?” If your child is too young to understand or process the news, offer brief statements followed by age-appropriate queries: “There was a terrible storm in a place called the Philippines. What have you learned in school about bad storms?” “A lot of families have been hurt and lost things that are very important to them. Can you think of ways that other people can help?”
ACKNOWLEDGE. Often we try to protect our children from experiencing difficult emotions like fear, sadness, anger, or confusion, even when these emotions are appropriate to their age and the situations they are confronting. Resist the temptation to minimize or distract your child from his or her strong feelings; rather, acknowledge and validate your child’s response. Phrases like, “I hear that you are feeling very sad,” or “It is hard for you to think about such scary things, isn’t it?” demonstrate respect for your child and show a willingness to understand and engage with him or her.
ANSWER. Listen to what your child is truly asking. Does he or she want a summary of the damage wrought by the typhoon? Is he or she wondering how safe your city is? Is he or she concerned about the well-being of friends or family living in other parts of the world? Restate your child’s questions – “You want to be sure that Rufina’s grandpa is safe, is that right?” – and offer answers that are age-appropriate and as simple and clear as possible. You might also use maps to show your child where the damage took place, or (pre-screened) Web resources to show your child age-appropriate images of the typhoon’s aftermath.
ASSURE. Confronting difficult issues can leave children feeling unsettled and insecure. Always end such conversations by assuring them that they can come to you with their fears, questions, and concerns, and that you will do everything you can to protect them from danger and harm. Don’t lie to your child – if, for example, you live in an area where hurricanes are possible, you should not promise they will never experience a hurricane – but reassure them with words (and hugs) that you are there to keep them safe.
ACT. Images of the typhoon’s horrific toll can leave adults feeling frightened and helpless – how much more so do our children feel in the wake of devastating news. Help your child channel his or her emotions into action. Whether it’s saying a prayer for victims of the disaster, setting up a lemonade stand or organizing a car wash or bake sale to raise money for relief efforts, or making a card for a friend whose extended family has been affected by the typhoon, your child will feel less vulnerable and more powerful by working to make a difference.