Kids ask a lot of tough questions but questions about war are some of the hardest to answer. When newscasts are filled with immediate and graphic details parents wonder if they should protect their children from the grim reality, explore the topic, and/or share their personal beliefs. Following are some answers to common questions and concerns that parents have about talking to children about war. Tailor your responses to the individual child. Keep in mind the child's age, individual personality, general tendency to be fearful and to worry, and general level of interest. Discussions do not happen all at once, parents should look for opportunities as they arise and let children know they are available to hear their concerns. Above all, monitor your own reactions as children learn the most from, and often worry the most about, those in their immediate environment. Maintaining a calm attitude conveys to the child that parents are in control and making sure their children are safe.
How do kids react to news about war?
A child's age and ability to understand information partly determines his/her reaction. Preschool children confuse facts with their fantasies and fear of danger. They do not yet have the ability to keep events in perspective and may be unable to block out troubling thoughts. They may not realize that a single incident is rebroadcast and so may think it's happening repeatedly and many more people are involved than is the case.
School age children can understand the difference between fantasy and reality but may have trouble keeping them separate during times of stress and uncertainty. They may also be susceptible to rumors. They may equate a scene from a scary movie with news footage and think that the news events are worse than they really are. In addition, the graphic and immediate nature of the news makes it seem as if the conflict is close to home - perhaps around the corner.
Middle school and high school age children may be interested and intrigued by the politics of a situation and feel a need to take a stand or action. They are concerned about concepts of ethics and justice and may show a desire to be involved in related political or charitable activities.
What details should I share?
For children who want more information, parents can talk about the specific rules for international cooperation established by the United Nations and UN inspectors finding evidence of attempts to hide weapons of mass destruction. With older children it may be helpful to discuss that some nations do not agree as well as the reasons for the disagreement. Parents and grandparents may engage in an open discussion with older children about living through previous wars during their own times.
What if my child knows someone directly involved?
Again it is important to be honest but obtaining accurate information is especially necessary. Know the correct approved avenues for getting up-to-date facts and the correct way to send messages to the individual. Keeping to a routine to help manage day to day activities and talking with members of other families in the same situation can help a child feel supported and less isolated.
What are kids most worried about?
Children relate the news to events or issues in their own lives. It is important not to minimize or ignore a child's worries.
Young children are usually concerned about separation from parents, about good and bad, and about fears of punishment. They may ask questions about children they see on the news who are alone, and worry about who will take care of them. They may bring up issues related to their own good and bad behavior, believing it to be related to events
Middle school children are concerned with peer relationships and are developing a more mature outlook. It is likely that they will be concerned about issues of fairness and punishment.
Teens consider larger issues related to ethics, politics, and even the possibility that they may be called into service to become directly involved. Teenagers, like adults, may become reflective about life and re-examine their own priorities and interests
What do I say when children ask if they can fight to solve problems?
Explain that fighting is never the first thing to do when there are disagreements and problems. The US has worked with the United Nations and other countries, and engaged in meetings and inspections to prevent war and get accurate information. The US will go to war if the leaders of the country believe that people's lives are at stake and want to do everything possible to prevent people in the US from being killed.
How can I reassure my child?
Not being able to provide children with a guarantee that things will be fine is difficult. But parents can reassure children with facts about how people are protected. For example, in addition to describing the United Nations, the president and congress, the President's meeting with world leaders, describe routine and special action taken by others;
- the government has investigative agencies, the army and navy to protect us here and abroad
- police in the community are on extra alert
- there have been additional security precautions in the US, especially since 9/11, such as new screening precedures at the airport
It is also important to reinforce individual safety measures that can be taken. For example:
- the importance of talking to an adult when scared
- knowing parent phone numbers
- letting parents know where their children are
- knowing who to call in case of emergency
How can I help my children deal with their worry and concern?
Reinforce their feelings of safety and protection by talking about active things they can do. The fact that people can write letters to make their opinions known, and that objections to war can be voiced without being unpatriotic illustrate the principles of democracy and free speech that we continue to protect. Help them feel in control by maintaining routines and providing a sense of comfort with certain aspects of their lives. Children can also feel empowered and useful by contributing to community organizations and volunteering to causes that have personal meaning. Adolescents can be encouraged to join school, religious and community groups where issues are discussed in a safe environment.
Should I let my child watch television?
We know that watching media coverage, and especially repeated viewing, can create stress in children even when they are not directly exposed to tragedy. Young children may think the event is happening over and over again. Older children may become more fearful. Parents should not let very young children watch; for older children viewing should be limited and parents should watch with them. Parents themselves should be careful of their own increased stress with viewing.
How do I know if my child is having trouble?
It is not always possible to judge if or when children are scared or worried about the news. They may be reluctant to talk about their fears or may not be aware of how they are being affected by the news. Parents can look for clues as to how their child is reacting. War play is not necessarily an indication of preoccupation. Playing games related to war is normal, and it may increase in response to current events as children actively work with the information, imitate, act out, or problem solve different scenarios.
Some children are naturally more prone to be fearful, and news of a dangerous situation may heighten their feelings of anxiety. At the other extreme, some children become immune to, or ignore the violence and suffering depicted in the news. They can get overloaded and become numb due to the repetitive nature of the reports. Children who were having trouble following 9/11 may also be at risk for increased problems. Parents should get further help if they see such things as:
- a significant change in, or problems with, behavior such as eating or sleeping sad, withdrawn, or depressed behavior that does not resolve
- excessive or uncontrollable worry
- a regression to earlier behavior such as bedwetting or baby talk
- acting-out behavior such as aggression in younger, and inappropriate behavior in older, children
- avoidance of school and social contacts
- avoidance of anything that reminds them of the war
- frequent new, unusual, or unexplained physical complaints
- symptoms that are affecting the child's ability to function at home, at school, with friends