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The Haiti talk: How to discuss disasters with your kids

Peacekeepers help out in Haiti following this week's earthquake. If parents don't discuss these events at home, kids may hear stories from others and become confused and scared.

Marco Dormino/Associated Press

On Wednesday, disaster and wreckage dominated the front page of the newspaper that 12-year-old Jori usually glances at in the morning. Her mom, Lesli Christianson-Kellow, knew the story of Haiti's devastating earthquake was one she'd have to explain to her daughter before she headed to school.

So the Calgary mom pointed out the map in the paper and explained the extent of the devastation and the fact that the country would be needing help in the coming days, weeks, months and onward.

"I wanted to give her some context because the kids will talk about it," she says. "And if you don't give your kids some background, they'll get some weird stories."

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She remembers her daughter coming to her in peak of the H1N1 flu fury, concerned by rumours that many kids her age were dying from the virus.

The Haiti talk What do you tell your kids when they ask you about the disaster in Haiti? Share your tips and advice with fellow parents who may need a helping hand.

Depending on the child and their age, talking to your kids about major world disasters in the news can help them understand what's going on, feel safe and arm them with the tools to help if they want to, experts say. But there's a fine line between freaking them out and making them feel confident.

"The first thing you have to do is acknowledge that it is awful," says Kathy Lynn, a parenting speaker and author in Vancouver. "Don't try to sugarcoat it. They're seeing the pictures and they know it's not lovely. However, in any disaster, particularly under the age of 10, don't keep the TV on all day. We tend to get kind of mesmerized when there's something like that."

Ms. Christianson-Kellow is trying not to turn on the news, to protect her daughters Jori and Casey, 9, from the graphic images, ones even she would find difficult to take in.

"The news is just unpredictable on TV, you don't really know what they're going to show," she says. "They need to know, but they're still kids."

Still, parents shouldn't ignore the disaster in an effort to protect their kids since the story is discussed almost everywhere, says Kelly Moroz, a child psychologist and director of the Moroz Child Psychology Group in Calgary.

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"We firmly believe that parents should be instigating conversation just to be checking the waters," he says. "The last thing anyone should be doing is avoiding, especially when someone has seen pictures or heard about [an event] the worst thing possible is to put the fear up on a pedestal by avoiding it."

To put a child's potentially racing imagination in check, parents can explain and illustrate the low likelihood of such a disaster happening here, Ms. Lynn says. "The reality is, in our cities, across Canada, our buildings are much more earthquake-proof, we're better ready to handle such a thing," she says. "For the kids that truly need to know, show them things like if anything ever happened here, we have a water heater here completely full of fresh water, so we would have water for a long time."

Parents can clearly explain the basics of the earthquake and the relief efforts, but may want to wait for follow-up questions from kids before divulging too much information that could only frighten or perplex them, she adds.

Some parents are talking with their very young children about the crisis by putting it in terms they can understand and avoiding the unnecessary gory details.

Molly Finlay, director of public relations at World Vision Canada, told her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Georgia she had to go to work early on Wednesday morning because many people in a far away country were in trouble and others needed to hear about it.

The preschooler loves to help, so explaining the ways to do it was a good way to communicate the disaster, she says.

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"I said 'the ground shook in a town that's very far away and some of those houses fell down and in those houses there were families just like us,' " she says. "I tried to get her to relate to them."

In response, the toddler offered to donate her jacket. She peppered her mom with queries about how the houses would be rebuilt and if there were enough people to offer help.

Leslie Garrett and her family heard about the disaster while celebrating her son Spencer's ninth birthday Tuesday evening in London, Ont. She calmly discussed it with him and her other children Charlotte, 6 and Sophie, 11. Ms. Garrett, who writes on environmental issues, took the same approach she takes when talking with her kids about climate change.

"We just talked about Haiti, what a poor country it is. I explained that the building construction is very different from construction here and that it's very unlikely we'd have an earthquake," the 45-year-old mom says. "Then I try to turn it into a 'how do we feel empowered when faced with this' and it becomes 'what action can I take to help mitigate damage?' "

Their kids are taxed on their allowances - 25 per cent goes to a charity of their choice - so she expects the $30 leftover from their donation to an animal charity over the Christmas holidays will go toward a donation toward relief efforts in Haiti.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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