Talking to Kids About Violent Images of War

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Photographs showing Iraqi prisoners of war being subjected to abuse by American military police have recently been released and shown repeatedly by most American television stations. The photographs contain graphic details and parents wonder if, when, and how to explain these events to their children. Kids’ questions are likely to be tough to answer, but as with all important discussions, keeping communication lines open is critical and honesty is essential. Some concerns don’t get settled quickly, and more than one talk may be necessary.

Following are some guidelines:

  • Wait for the child’s questions or for an opportune moment to bring up the topic. Be aware of your own reactions, -- shock, dismay, anger- since children are apt to reflect the attitudes of their parents.

  • Consider the child’s individual personality style and temperament. Some children are naturally more prone to be fearful and may already be worried about the war, especially if they know someone directly involved in the war. News showing graphic instances of sexual and physical violence may heighten a child’s feelings of anxiety. Some children, preoccupied with their own lives, will simply not pay much attention to the news. At the other extreme, some children become immune to, or ignore, the violence and suffering depicted. They can get overloaded and become numb due to the repetitive nature of the reports. Exposure to other forms of violence, such as video games, makes it more difficult to understand the reality of the news events.

  • Adjust your response to the age of the child. Children personalize the news and interpret events in relation to their own lives. Young children are usually concerned about good or bad and fear punishment. They may confuse facts with their fantasies and fears. They may not realize that the same images are shown many times and may think the actions are repeated. School-age children, in the midst of peer struggles, are concerned about fairness and punishment. They may equate scenes from a scary movie with news footage and magnify the personal effect of news events. Teens consider issues of ethics and politics and may feel a need to take a stand or action.

Following are common questions reflecting parents’ concerns and some possible answers:

Can we just ignore the news and hope the children don’t see shocking and violent images?
Although it’s tempting to protect children from unpleasant realities, ignoring the news, particularly for school-age children, is probably not an option. They are likely to see the images in the media or hear about them from others. Letting kids keep scared feelings to themselves can be more damaging than frank discussion.

How do we explain abusive and shocking acts?
First find out what the child saw, read or heard and then encourage questions. Answer questions directly without giving more information than the child is asking for. Answers might include points such as the following, depending on the age and personality of the child:

  • What we know so far is that some prison guards and others have broken laws.
  • These laws have been agreed upon by countries all over the world.
  • Our government and army courts are investigating these acts
  • People involved in cruel acts will be brought to trial.
  • Punishment for people found guilty will be decided by courts.
  • Most people in all countries, including the Americans and the Iraqis, obey the rules and laws of their country.

With older children the discussion might include reasons why rules, even in war, are necessary. Discussion should emphasize that individual acts of violence do not reflect the values of the whole society. It would be helpful to point out examples of individual bravery that have been in the news.

How much information should we share?
For children who want more information, parents can talk about the role of the International Red Cross, the specific rules for the rights of prisoners of war established by the Geneva Convention and the fact that war criminals are prosecuted in the World Court. Older children may wish to discuss the reasons for the war, the way their lives have been affected and ways in which they can express their opinion.

Should I let my children watch television?
Research has shown that watching media coverage, especially repeated viewing, can create stress for children even when they are not directly exposed to tragedy. Television viewing should be limited. Parents should watch with their children in order to deal with their reactions and to be available to share their feelings.

Should we tell our child our opinion?
Open and honest discussion is recommended. Serious and shocking events may stimulate a dialogue about the larger issues of terrorism, tolerance, and non-violent problem-solving.

How can we help children deal with their worry and shock?
Continue with established routines. When appropriate, talk about things children might do, such as writing letters to make their opinions known and participating in community or political organizations. Parents should seek further help if they see:

  • acting out behavior
  • a change or problems with behavior, such as eating or sleeping or withdrawn or depressed behavior that does not resolve
  • excessive or uncontrollable worry
  • regression to earlier behavior, such as bedwetting or baby talk
  • avoidance or school and social contacts
  • avoidance of anything that reminds them of the war
  • frequent new, unusual or unexplained physical complaints