Of all the images of the unfolding disaster in Japan, few have been as poignant as that of a rowboat full of 3-year-olds being rescued from a child care center in Sendai.
As smashed cars and bits of houses floated by, the children’s eyes were wide and uncomprehending, their faces frozen with astonishment. They didn’t yet know they might never again see their mothers and fathers and other family members.
What can be done to help these children live with the unknown and with their losses?
During the last decade, international disaster relief agencies like the Red Cross, Save the Children, UNICEF and others have had plenty of experience in responding to desperate need.
For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Save the Children set up protected spaces where children could keep on doing what they do — play. Through play, children try to understand the incomprehensible.
Whenever possible, children in disaster areas should be sheltered with familiar people — siblings, other relatives or teachers. When none can be found, rescue workers make a big difference. Their simple, caring gestures show children that there still are predictable helpers they can count on, even when the rest of the world has turned upside down.
As Mr. Rogers said after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, “Always look to the helpers.”
Re-establishing some sense of normality reassures children. Familiar routines, activities, songs and games create continuity with the way things used to be, even though so much has changed. It doesn’t help to cover up what has happened. When the news is uncertain, offer hope without making false promises — these children may need to learn to trust strangers to care for them.
Children need simple, clear, timely information. They can only take in what they are ready for. Then they’ll use play to handle the possibilities that they are able to imagine.
What do we tell our own children? First, listen to their questions.
Between 2 and 5 years of age, children want to know that they and their parents are safe. We don’t yet know how the radioactive plumes will affect health across the Pacific. But for now we can reassure them, “We’re OK.”
It’s more complicated to help children learn to care about people who are not safe that they don’t even know. Even for adults, it’s challenging to balance our concern for the safety of nearby nuclear plants with our compassion for the Japanese people. Children this age may also wonder, “Did they do something bad to deserve this?”
Between 6 and 11 years, children want to know how things work. What causes an earthquake? A tsunami? What wrecked the nuclear power plants?
Seeking information is their way of mastering their fears. Some will invent unkind explanations to reassure them that this only happens to other people: “It’s their fault for building nuclear power plants near the ocean.”
They’ll also want to help. Raising money for disaster relief organizations is one simple way they can.
Some adolescents may say they don’t care — a different way of handling feelings of vulnerability, responsibility and impotence set off by this disaster. Others will ask, “Why do terrible things happen to innocent people?” or “How could the world be so unfair?”
We need not have answers. We simply need to value their questions. They show us that the older children have learned to treasure the preciousness of life and to face its precariousness.
When they ask not only what we should do about nuclear power here but about how we can help people there, they show us that they have learned that all humans everywhere are much more the same than different. We all are Japanese in Sendai.
Among many disaster relief organizations:
The American Red Cross: Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami Relief. www.redcross.org
Save the Children: Emergency Relief for Japan Quake. www.savethechildren.org/japanquake
UNICEF: Disaster in Japan
Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by e-mail to: nytsyn-families(at)nytimes.com. The (at) represents the symbol on your keyboard. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column, which may be posted on a Families Today website or collected in book form. Drs. Brazelton and Sparrow regret that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.