Talking with children about Flint’s water crisis

How to talk to your children about the recent lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Children hear a lot about what is happening around them, even when they are not the intended audience.
Children hear a lot about what is happening around them, even when they are not the intended audience.

Most Americans take clean drinking water for granted. How many times a day do you turn on the faucet with full confidence the water that comes out is clean and safe for drinking, cleaning and giving to your pets? For the residents of Flint, Michigan, that assumption is no longer true. The water running out of the tap in some cases contains elevated levels of lead, and at various times in this crisis contained unsafe levels of other chemicals or bacteria.

Despite changes in the water treatment, according to the Detroit Free Press an estimated 10.9 percent of homes still have unsafe water as of late February 2016. Families with pregnant women and children under 6 are still recommended to use bottled water instead of trusting the filters to work properly to remove lead. These are scary times for Flint residents, with an unseen hazard lurking in their pipes, under their feet, in their homes, threatening their children’s very health and wellness. How should parents talk to their children about this crisis? How do parents make their children feel more secure in the safety of their water supply, when they are also uncertain?

Michigan State University Extension recommends the following steps to discuss the Flint water crisis with your children:

  1. Ask what they know. For children in Flint, there is no doubt they know something is wrong with the water. Outside of Flint, most Michigan school-age children have heard about the Flint water crisis. Many schools have conducted water drives and obviously Flint school buildings have had to switch to bottled water. Ask open-ended questions such as, “What have you heard about the water in Flint?” or “Tell me more about what you know about the water crisis in Flint?”
  2. Fact check their information. Listen to your children’s answers and repeat back to them what you heard. “I heard you say that this happened.” Provide them with the most accurate information possible, if clarification is needed, “Actually, this is what happened.” It is OK to say you don’t know or aren’t sure about that information. MSU Extension has launched the Fight Lead Exposure website as an informational hub for people to learn more about the effects of lead in the water, including the risks and what to do if you or a family member has been exposed to lead.
  3. Provide basic facts in an age-appropriate manner. Avoid using complicated terms or unnecessarily alarming children. Identify no more than three key points to make and lead with those, for instance, “Our water is safe now but a while ago, the water was not safe to drink. We are using filters and bottled water now because the pipes were damaged and the water might not be safe still. We are going to visit the doctor to check and see if your body is healthy.”
  4. Reassure them the water they drink is safe. Tell your children what steps you have taken to ensure they have safe water. It is recommended all Flint residents have their water tested. Call 810-787-6537 or 2-1-1 for more information about water testing. All Flint residents should be utilizing NSF approved water filters at all points where water is consumed, and residents that are pregnant and children under 6 should continue drinking bottled water at this time. All formula and drink mixes should be pre-made or made with bottled water. WIC is providing pre-mixed formula for Flint residents.
  5. Provide follow up information. Particularly for Flint residents, children may be wondering what has happened to them and what is next. Parents are encouraged to have children’s blood lead levels tested. Talk to your children about that process in a factual and simplified manner, “We will visit the doctor and they will do a checkup because the water was not safe for a while, and we want to make sure you are healthy.”

It is important to remember children hear a lot of what is happening around them, even when they are not the intended audience. Sometimes children have questions about what is going on and they aren’t sure how to ask. When there are big news stories or tragedies, keep children in mind as you are discussing what happened. Always ask what they know and provide age-appropriate information as needed.

Your goal as a parent is to become the valid source of information children turn to when they have questions, big or small. Listen carefully to what they ask and provide information they are seeking in a manner that is appropriate for their age. It is OK to say, “I don’t know how to answer that right now,” or “I need to find out that information,” and take time to look up the answer or frame your message more carefully.

These are very stressful times for Flint residents, and children often feel those stresses. Sometimes it is tempting to lie to children about what is happening, to protect them from feeling stressed or afraid, but it is best to provide children with accurate, age-appropriate information. Without accurate information from a trusted adult, children will rely on peers and overheard information, which can be confusing and frightening.

For more information about the Flint water crisis, visit MSU Extension’s Fight Lead Exposure website. Find both resources for Flint residents and volunteer opportunities at the State of Michigan’s Help for Flint website. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Genesee County Health Department have information for parents living in Flint as well.

For more information about early childhood education and other topics, visit the MSU Extension website.

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