Helping Children to Understand and Cope With the War in Iraq
With a quarter of a million troops deployed and endless war talk consuming media outlets and dinner tables alike, children canít help but worry and ask questions. For parents and caregivers, answering these questions and calming these fears is a difficult, but vital task. Teach Tolerance provides suggestions for helping children to understand and cope with war:
Create a time and place for children to ask their questions. Don't force children to talk about things until they're ready.
Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they may worry about friends or relatives who live in a city or state associated with incidents or events.
Help children find ways to express themselves. Some children may not be able to talk about their thoughts, feelings, or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing pictures, playing with toys or writing stories or poems directly or indirectly related to current events.
Use words and concepts your child can understand. Make your explanation appropriate to your child's age and level of understanding. Don't overload a child with too much information.
Give children honest answers and information. Children will usually know if you're not being honest.
Be prepared to repeat explanations or have several conversations. Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may be your child's way of asking for reassurance.
Avoid stereotyping groups of people by race, nationality or religion. Use the opportunity to teach tolerance and explain prejudice.
Let children know how you are feeling. It's OK for them to know if you are anxious or worried about events. However, don't burden them with your concerns.
Don't let children watch lots of violent or upsetting images on TV. Repetitive frightening images or scenes can be very disturbing, especially to young children.
Help children establish a predictable routine and schedule. Children are reassured by structure and familiarity. School, sports, birthdays, holidays and group activities take on added importance during stressful times.
Coordinate information between home and school. Parents should know about activities and discussions at school. Teachers should know about the child's specific fears or concerns.
Children who have experienced trauma or loss may show more intense reactions to tragedies or news of war. These children may need extra support and attention.
Help children communicate with others and express themselves. Some children may want to write letters to the president, governor or local newspaper.
RECOGNIZE AND RESPOND TO BEHAVIOR CHANGES
Watch for physical symptoms related to stress. Many children show anxiety and stress through complaints of physical aches and pains. Signs that a child may need professional help include: ongoing trouble sleeping, persistent upsetting thoughts, fearful images, intense fears about death and trouble leaving their parents or going to school.
Watch for possible preoccupation with violent movies or war-themed video/computer games.
Maintain consistent expectations in behavior and levels of responsibility, but be flexible in terms of your children needing physical closeness (extra hugs, sitting with them as they fall sleep, allowing them to do homework at the kitchen table).
Let children be children. They may not want to think or talk a lot about these events. It is OK if they'd rather play ball, climb trees or ride their bikes.
War affects all of us. But children of those in the military feel an especially direct impact. The disruption of family life compounds feelings of anxiety. It is especially critical that parents and caregivers help balance the needs of these children to understand whatís happening factually with their need to manage and express feelings and fears.
Here are some additional tips to help these children cope with parents or family members called to duty:
KEEP CHILDREN INFORMED OF FACTS
Children need to know the truth regarding the events taking place and the active duty assignment. Discuss what you know, and know that it is OK to acknowledge what you donít know.
Let your children know that information may change and that you will update them as new information becomes available.
Use a map or globe to help children understand where their parents are located.
Use age-appropriate terms to share information: Young children may require repeated reassurance during the day; school age children can understand tasks and assigned duties of the deployed parent; adolescents may want to discuss issues related to war as well as their loved onesí responsibilities, living conditions and potential risks.
INVOLVE CHILDREN IN COPING PLANS
Brainstorm ways to support each other and positive things they can do to show their love and support.
Creative activities such as drawing pictures, writing letters or stories, or baking cookies to send to the loved one on active duty help children feel more in control and provides alternative ways to express their feelings.
SEEK A SUPPORT SYSTEM
Consider networking with other military families under similar circumstances for comfort and support.
Offer to help each other with family chores, such as car pooling, mowing the lawn, babysitting, homework help, etc. This kind of support and connection is good for adults and children.
Utilize military support services for families of active duty members. This includes information, family mentors, counselors, logistical support, etc.
Help your children understand that is okay to accept support; they may be in a position to support others in the future.
MAINTAIN ROUTINES AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
Share household chores at age appropriate levels.
Children can help pick up some of the duties of the deployed parent, such as mowing the lawn, doing the dishes or taking out the garbage, but children should not be expected to "become" the parent in terms of responsibilities.
Shield children from financial worries. It is fine to let children know that the family needs to be careful about spending, but they are not capable of taking on the burden financial concerns.
ADDRESS CONCERNS ABOUT DEATH OR INJURY
If children express concern about a loved one being killed or injured, explain that the chance of returning from this conflict is very high.
Let children know that advances in medicine and technology have greatly reduced potential losses from military actions.
Reassure children that the U.S. military has planned carefully for engagement and inform them that very few U.S. lives were lost in recent conflicts, such as Afghanistan and the earlier Gulf War.
Acknowledge that the loss of any life is sad, but that his or her family member is likely to be fine.
Use developmentally appropriate language to talk to children who may be concerned about death. Outside resources such as books geared to different ages that explore death and dying, grief and hospice organizations, or your faith community, can be helpful resources.
MAINTAIN GOOD HOME AND SCHOOL COMMUNICATION
Let your childís teacher know if a family member is on active duty and if you have any special concerns.
Encourage the teacher to keep you informed as well.
Remember that teachers might be under heightened stress like everyone else. Not only are they providing extra support to their students, they may also have loved ones who are called to active duty and/or trying to cope with their own personal reactions to events.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
National Association of School Psychologists