By Joseph D. White, Ph.D.
We have all been shocked and saddened by the news and images of the earthquake aftermath in Haiti — the large numbers of dead and injured, the millions left homeless and the ongoing humanitarian crisis related to lack of shelter, food, water and medical care. Such a large-scale disaster raises difficult questions for everyone, but children watching news of the disaster may have particular difficulty understanding why and how this could happen.
Children come to us because we usually have the answers when they are confused. But how do we help them process a tragedy like this, particularly when we ourselves struggle with comprehending it? Here are some recommendations for helping children of various ages cope with the Haiti disaster:
Ages 6 and under : Children this age have limited ability to imagine something happening far away, and they also tend to relate what they see and hear back to themselves. If they have too much detail about the tragedy, they may fear it will happen to them. Limit exposure to the news, and try not to discuss the disaster within earshot. If they have heard about the earthquake already, reassure them that it is far away, and include the people of Haiti in your family prayers.
Ages 7 to 12 : Children this age are somewhat better able to process news of the event, but they also need to be protected from the excessive barrage of grisly images that can sometimes follow such a profound disaster. They will especially be upset by news of children their age who are trapped or suffering, or who have died in the quake. Some children this age may also fear that an earthquake or other disaster may happen where they live. We cannot promise that it won’t, but we can reassure them that such disasters are very rare - for example, “We have lived here years, and nothing like that has ever happened here.” We can also let them know that when disasters occur in our country, it is much easier to get medical care and supplies to people who need them.
Be aware that one of the greatest (and often unspoken) fears of children this age is the death of a parent. If your child fears being separated from you after news of a disaster like this, he or she may be afraid something will happen to you. Again, it’s helpful to point out the record - for example, “I was fine at work when you were at school for the past three years. I think we’ll both be fine today.”) If children do openly state fears about a parent’s death, it may be helpful to point out that parents don’t usually die when children are young. Ask your child how many friends he or she has had whose parents have died (the answer is likely none). Cite this as evidence that young children almost never lose a parent. Let them know that we only make ourselves feel bad when we worry about something that isn’t likely to happen.
Encourage your child to do what he or she can to help those in need. For example, you might provide an opportunity to complete an extra chore or two in order to earn money to donate to relief efforts.
Ages 13-18 : Teens will have much more ability to understand and process news reports of the tragedy, and may pose difficult questions about why God would allow such suffering. These are not questions anyone can answer perfectly, but consider the words of Pope John Paul II, who said, “God is always on the side of the suffering.” While we don’t perfectly understand why tragedies occur, we know that God is with the people of Haiti, sitting by their side, holding them in his embrace and crying with them.
You may also encourage your son or daughter to do what he or she can to help the people of Haiti, perhaps by participating in local efforts to raise money for Catholic Relief Services or the Red Cross, and especially by praying for the people — that those who are suffering will be comforted and will know God is with them, and that those who have died will be welcomed into God’s kingdom.
Finally, it is important for all of us — young and old — to keep things in perspective. Sometimes very bad things happen to good people, but good things happen as well. This is a time for us to band together and reach out to others in need, but it’s also an opportunity for us to appreciate the blessings we have — especially the people we love.
After you have given to the people of Haiti, take a break from the news and share some good times together. Life can be fragile and unpredictable — let us gratefully enjoy it while we can.
Joseph D. White, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and director of Family Counseling and Family Life Office, Diocese of Austin.
“Haitians are a resilient people. They will survive, but the pain of loss — and the extent of loss — will leave a permanent mark on this community. Hopefully, even in evil God can bring about good. The solidarity of the international community hopefully will hearten Haitians here and in Haiti; this tragedy has affected Haitians of all social and economic classes. Hopefully this tragedy will bring about a new national unity among the Haitian people who have been long divided over class and/or political lines. And for us in the United States, let me say that geography has made the United States and Haiti neighbors; now is the time that we show that we also are truly brothers and sisters.”
— Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., who served briefly in Haiti and later was director of the Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center in Miami and pastor of three Haitian parishes in the Archdiocese of Miami
In a Jan. 13 column on the Haitian tragedy, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who is chairman of Catholic Relief Services, urged Catholics to pray to Venerable Pierre Toussaint for his intercessions on behalf of the people on the beleaguered island nation.
Toussaint was born a slave on a Haitian plantation in 1766 and lived there until he was 21, when he was brought to New York City to serve his owner. There, he became a popular hairdresser, using his considerable earnings to assist the widow of his owner until she granted him his freedom on her deathbed in 1807. As a free man, he became known for many charitable acts, including setting up a home for orphans and freeing slaves. He and his wife, Juliet, donated money to build a Catholic church in New York, the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
His cause was officially opened by Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York in 1989. In 1997, Pope John Paul II declared him venerable.
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