Talking to children about Natural Disasters

Amber Demetrius

WCIA’s Global Learning Manager, Amber Demetrius, offers her thoughts on creating spaces for children to talk about and understand disasters and other big world events.

It’s no secret amongst my nearest and  dearest that I cry easily. Despite knowing that all will be ok at the end of the story, I feel the pain of the characters so keenly it almost always brings tears to my eyes. I cry at the cinema when the music swells, I cry at the news, I’ve even burst into tears whilst talking about a sad part of a book that I’ve read. I’ve never considered this a problem. Rather, I see it as an (admittedly embarrassing)  part of my humanity.

My daughter (aged seven) is fascinated by this. When we watch something emotional, I feel her head turning towards me to see how I’m affected by it. If there are tears, it’s a million questions about why it’s sad, how it’s sad, is it as sad as something else…She also seems to get a sense of pride if she feels affected by something. At a stage when she’s making sense of feelings and relationships, sadness is something she is constantly curious to explore, and to understand.

Like everyone, the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria have left us with a sense of sadness, shock and of loss. Not only because it has involved loss of lives but also because it is a natural disaster. A disaster that could happen again, to any one of us. A horrible reminder that we live in a world that feels sometimes very dangerous. Very unstable. It’s also shocking because the people living in those regions were already affected by war (either directly or indirectly) and it feels unfair that this has now added to an already heavy burden.

It’s hard to talk about these things with my daughter. Hard because I try to tell her the truth but I also don’t want to open up about the fact that sometimes, terrible things happen to people and it’s not fair. I don’t want to talk about the stories of danger, where we don’t know if it’s going to be alright at the end.  I hear statistics about young people who are afraid for the future and I don’t want her to believe she might also be heading into disaster.

In life, though, disasters do befall us.

Image: IHH Turkey, Van earthquake relief effort, October 2011 – mobile kitchen serving 10.000 people a day. Source IHH via Flickr Creative Commons license.

I know there is not a person reading this who has not encountered some form of disaster at some point in their lives. Putting aside the day-to-day disasters of living, we are all facing existential disasters including climate change, huge inequalities and discrimination, not to mention the recent pandemic. When my daughter encounters the world, she encounters a world that is already fraught with disaster. Like the wolf in popular fairy tales, it takes a role in almost all of our stories and if we leave it just outside of view, it can be frightening. However, if we talk about it, get curious about it in a safe environment; we can begin to understand how to tackle it.

A key purpose of the Curriculum for Wales developing ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world. This means supporting them to talk about what is going on in the world and explaining to them, in simple and clear terms, what has happened. Many people are afraid of doing this for fear of not knowing enough. But saying something, especially with the phrase “let’s find out together” is so much better than saying nothing. There are fantastic resources with unbiased views on current events  including:

Oxfam – teaching resources

Home – CBBC Newsround

Another challenge that people (including me) encounter is that the truth of a situation is rarely as simple and clear as we would like it to be! For example, my conversation about the earthquake lead me onto other issues like war, refugees, power, inequalities…the list goes on. A good tip to remember is that same principle that we want to tell the truth but that we can also tell it simply. Talking through options for telling the story can be helpful when this happens (this bit is sort of complicated…do you want to find out more about this bit or that bit?). I often find  I’m really enjoying learning about something and my daughter has started doing something else because she got the jist of the story and didn’t need anymore! If you do need quick answers, the WCIA website has a good range of resources that cover current affairs and you can find them here ChangeMakers – Welsh Centre for International Affairs (

The final thing I try to remember is to not give way to a version of the truth that is short on either empathy or hope. Disasters befall us. They will continue to befall us. However, to say the world is a hopeless place is lazy and simplistic.  The last 100 years has seen some terrible disasters but it has also been the birthplace of immense innovation and a groundswell of inventions to protect humanity including charities, technologies and international cooperation. In other words, disasters have befallen all of us but we have not been beaten down by them. A really important part of these stories is also looking at relief efforts: how we can help. The following organisations are working with those affected by the earthquakes and this is a link to supporting students to develop projects for social action and empowerment.

URGENT! Provide Medical Relief to Families Affected by the Massive Earthquake in Syria – Syrian British Medical Society (

Turkey and Syria Earthquake Appeal – Donate | Islamic Relief UK (

Turkey and Syria Earthquake Appeal – Donate Now | Oxfam GB

In the same vein, it feels important to me to not become desensitised to disaster just through our own exposure to it. If people’s stories are what makes them individuals, our ability to hear them and feel them is what makes us human. Empathy is such an important part of breaking down barriers of discrimination but it is also the value that will keep us in touch with our own humanity. I want my daughter to have the strength to take action when disaster comes but to never be so hard she is always braced for it. I want her softness to stay with her in a world that is increasingly afraid of difference. To listen to others, especially those who are different to her, and to never ever  lose her ability to cry at the sad parts.

If you would like to learn more about the Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, my colleague Craig has written an overview here:

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