Oil and Water

“Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?”

That was the question Malia asked her dad, who happens to be President of the United States. Thank goodness the rest of us don’t have to come up with an answer for that one (except for the CEO of BP, of course), but we do have to figure out how to talk about this ever-growing natural disaster with our own kids, and that’s tough.

A couple days ago I found myself discussing the dire situation in the Gulf with some friends around our kitchen table. My 16-year-old was there, along with her friend, and it suddenly dawned on me that our conversation was beginning to alarm them. Both kids got that look — the one that screams “Enough! TMI! This is making us uncomfortable and it’s too awkward to deal with in front of one another.” And these two are in their mid-teens.

I wised up and dialed it down, but it reminded me, once again, that kiddos of all ages are constantly being bombarded with this information, and it’s vitally important to be there, explain it, and help them process it.

So how do you handle it when your little guys ask about the live video cam showing brown-red sludge billowing into our ocean 24/7? How much do you say? How do you tell the truth without adding to their fears? And what if they don’t ask? This is scary stuff, and the answers to the questions depend on the age of your child and, to some degree, their individual temperament.

Even if your child doesn’t sit down and watch CNN or read news about the spill, chances are he knows about it from commercials and talk that goes on around him. Overheard conversations at school or in friend’s homes can lead to exaggerated ideas about the disaster. These snippets of information can spark real fears, which are multiplied if you have family or friends living in the Gulf region.

Listen for comments or questions about what’s going on and begin the conversation there. If your child doesn’t bring it up, the best way to find out what he’s thinking is simply to ask. A conversation that begins with something like “What are your friends saying about the oil spill?” is an easy way to open up the topic. But how much is too much?

Young children (up to about 7) don’t always separate make-believe from reality. They see and hear them both on TV, and the images can be extremely powerful. Be careful to limit exposure to disturbing pictures, especially for these little ones. These are the kids who are most in touch with, and awed by, nature. They may be particularly upset by the visuals of birds and fish drenched in oil. Hit the “off” button.

If yours is upset or scared, acknowledge his fears and reassure him that he and the rest of the family are safe. Explain that oil spills like this are rare events and emphasize that many, many grown-ups are working hard to clean it up. Answer his questions honestly and clearly, but don’t go into unnecessary detail. If he asks about wildlife you may want to describe the process of cleaning the birds.

It helps to talk about your own feelings so he knows that moms and dads also get scared or sad or angry. Kids may be embarrassed by their feelings, and it can help a child open up if he understands that emotions are nothing to be ashamed of. DO keep your emotions under control and your tone neutral so he can feel safe.

School-age kids (about 8-12) may look for more information and facts to calm their fears. They’re concrete thinkers in the information-gathering stage, and the comforting structure of knowing more can help them make sense of the senseless.

This is the child who wants to watch the news with you. It helps him to talk about what you’re hearing and seeing. Follow his lead and explore his questions online or with other resources. Keep an eye on what he’s hearing at school and what conclusions he’s drawing.

Be his learning partner, and always emphasize the positive. What work is being done? What lessons are being learned? What techniques are being used to try and plug the leak? Why have they worked or not? Once again, reassure and don’t overdo it. Yes, this is an important event, but it’s not the only thing going on in the world or in his life. Offer perspective.

Older kids (middle and high school) are becoming more abstract thinkers and want to understand the complexities of what’s happened. They look to assign responsibility and consider the consequences of the disaster.

This is a great opportunity to be a sounding board for your teen. Discuss your ideas about the environment, our dependence on fossil fuels, and the future implications of a spill like this and oil exploration in general. Remember to listen more than you talk (a weak area of mine).

No matter what your child’s age, you can invite participation and encourage action. Explain that solving the problem will require some big changes — in society and in our own daily lives. We’ll need to rethink the way we get energy, the way we build our houses, and the ways we get around. Everyone must play a part.

Provide opportunities for kids to take action. Seek out positive steps you can take as a family. For instance, if your kids are concerned about the sea birds in the Gulf, acknowledge that they are in danger and suggest that your family help out with a habitat restoration project.

Help them feel like they can have some impact on the outcome, and be glad you don’t have to answer the question, “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?”

To find more ideas for teaching children about the oil spill, check out The Humane Connection here.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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