Monday, March 21, 2011

Talking about Danger, Disaster, and Loss

Tokyo, with its population of more than 8 million, is not like the rural United States. In the small-town Midwest, people recognize just about everyone and can tell if someone is from the “outside.” The train station we used in Tokyo, on the other hand, saw more than two million people pass through it every day, meaning it was packed with strangers at any given moment. As the parents of a preschool boy prone to running ahead of us, we had to have some dire conversations about how dangerous people could be. We found ourselves telling 3 year-old Sky that most people are not our friends and that we should never trust strangers unless they are policemen or train conductors. And as our warnings went unheeded, we found ourselves resorting to scare tactics like telling him, “If you get too far from Mommy, we may never see you again.” Every time we had these conversations, I realized that I was teaching my child how to stay safe, but I also knew that I was taking away pieces of his innocence and doing it way too soon.

But, how do we talk to our kids about danger, disaster and loss?

We have struggled with this question the past week as, even from the Midwestern US, we try to come to terms with the grave losses in Japan. Pink P. is too young to remember much about her years in Japan and cannot begin to fathom the idea of death or the fear of natural disaster. Sky, however, remembers minor earthquakes and earthquake drills. He knows about tornadoes, and tornado drills. He understands about death and loss, even as he struggles to understand how these things make people sad.

A week ago Friday morning, as we were getting ready for school, I switched on the local news only to be greeted with the horrifying sights of Japanese villages much like the ones I have lived in or visited being swept away by a mass of water. It made me cry. And just as I started to cry, Sky came in to talk to me. Surprised, he asked why I was crying, and I was at a loss to explain it to him. How do I tell a six year-old about a huge earthquake and then a mass of water sweeping away entire towns without scaring him? I kept it simple and said, “Japan has a big earthquake and that made me sad.” He wasn’t sure whether I was kidding or not, and so grinned and went to eat his cereal.

But the thing about my spectrum kid is that, while he doesn’t process people’s feelings well, he does process information. In fact, he is able to analyze and make sense of things in a way that ends up making him feel less scared instead of more. This makes it hard to know how to talk about what has happened in Japan. I know that showing him videos of the earthquake and tsunami and pictures of the devastation will give him the opportunity to analyze and make sense of the nature behind what happened there and help him to work through why Mom and Dad have not been themselves these past several days. But I also know that no child, or adult, for that matter, should ever have to see what we have all been seeing since the March 11th quake.

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