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Talking To Kids About War

ALERT May 14, 2004

Children, the War and What They Hear in the Media

Your children are hearing the news about American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. Undoubtedly, they will be confused because our armed forces are supposed to be the 'good guys.'

Even if you intercept the news, the media is everywhere. What children don't hear from the media, they will hear in school, from their friends, and on the street. The impact this news will have on them is enormous, frightening and traumatic.

Tips for Explaining What They Hear

- Explain that most of our armed forces are the 'good guys' and that the few who are committing these horrific acts of abuse are wrong and will be punished.

- Explore the age appropriateness of the news you allow your children to see. Children under the age of 8 should be completely shielded from graphic violent images - Kids 8 and under can't differentiate between fantasy violence and real horror.

- Keep the television and radio news off when kids are around and do not leave newspapers in the open

- Be on the alert about the Internet - Home pages of your Internet Service Provider could have a clip or graphic images of the beheading and other abuses.

- Create an open dialogue. Tell your kids 10 and up your version of the news. You want them to hear it from you because they will hear it from others.

- Share your feelings about the news you see

- Let your kids know the difference between news and reality

- Explore the facts with your child

- Acknowledge the complexity of the news

First our children had to deal with the shock of the September 11th terrorist attacks ... now they have war to deal with!

As we face difficult times it is imperative that we do not overlook our children who are frightened and scared. And we must not overlook our children who are at risk and peril on a daily basis … and at even greater risk in times of stress.

The traumatic impact of war has overwhelmed our nation. No matter what
our beliefs are - we must support our troops and we must pay even more attention to our children. We must be there for them, to answer questions, to show love, caring and support ... we must ease their fears.

Many children will be affected by the war - through their parents, their friends, or the media. Some will have friends whose parents, relatives, or neighbors are at war. Some children won't know anyone, or have reactions to the war at all. They may feel safe in their homes and communities. Young children, particularly, may not understand adult reactions. It is important to reassure children of their safety at this time.

Together, with the experts, we offer you this information to help you help your children.

Talk To Kids About War

Discussing war with kids is a difficult subject because your child’s reaction to war will depend on their:

· Age
· Personality and Temperament
· Stage of Development

No matter what you do … always tell your kids the truth and always reassure them!

Preschool Kids:

· Talk to kids in very concrete terms. Tell them that some people, not all   people in   the world are bad and that there is a bad man in another country trying to hurt our   country’s security. Show them a globe or map and point   out Iraq. Then show them   where they live and how far away the bad man is from them. Assure your kids that   the war is not in their neighborhood.
· Keep your kids away from the TV news reports as much as possible
· By showing your kids you are not obsessed with war, they won’t be

School Age:
· Kids in this age group usually understand the difference between reality and fantasy   however, in times of stress will likely listen to rumors, over exaggerate events in   the news and envision the conflict closer to home.Talk to your kids about what is   happening, and be honest. Do not go into any unnecessary details ... it could scare   them.

Middle School - High School Kids:

· This age group is usually intrigued by political and philanthropic events and activities   and feel they need to take action. Partner with your kids and make them feel a part   of what is going to happen and how you feel.
· Work together on solutions for a family plan.

Personality and Temperament

Some children will be more fearful than others. They will also take their lead from you. If you are not overly fearful they shouldn’t be either. Whereas some kids are very fearful, others will be on denial and become immune.

Stage and Development

· Kids relate to issues in their own lives. Young children may become more clingy and   ask questions about kids they see on the news who may be alone.
· Middle school kids are involved with peer struggles and are interested in fairness and   punishment.
· Older kids and teens may demonstrate more aggressive behavior, and become   contemplate life and their own priorities and interests.
The most important thing you can do for your children during this period of worry and uncertainty is to communicate with.

· Discharge false rumors by asking what they have heard from others or in school, and   making sure their children know the truth about the situation.
· Tell your children there are two sides to the situation. Whether they disagree with it   or not, explain there is a positive side to the war effort.
· Encourage your kids to speak about what they’re feeling. It is damaging for them to   keep it in.
· Use language and always discuss everything that is age appropriate for your child.
· If your child doesn’t want to discuss what is happening, they may not be ready.
· Ask children what they’ve heard before beginning your talk with them
· Never dismiss a child’s fear
· Be alert to your child’s facial and verbal expressions, as well as posture and   behavior
· Always be available for questions, talks, etc. A good opportunity to talk is when   watching TV together.
· Maintain normal routines to make your kids feel safe
· Explore positive ways of coping to allay your children’s fears
· Reassure safety measures and how people are protected
· If your kids ask ‘what-if’ be honest and let them know that many people are   working to ensure violent events don’t reoccur
· Always be attentive to your child’s needs, fears, and questions

Each child will have their own unique style of processing and coping. Some may experience sleep problems, nightmares, bed-wetting, anxiety, aggressive behavior, problems with schoolwork, excessive worry, baby talk, inappropriate behavior, avoidance of school or social contacts, unexplained physical complaints, etc. It is important for parents to recognize warning signs.

Nurturing and Loving Your Children

As kids cope with war and fear of terrorism, it is critical for parents to nurture their children and show them they are loved. Give them extra attention and continual support. Be there for them by being attentive and available. Hugging your children often gives them a sense of security and love.

Parents In the Armed Forces

If kids have a parent or close relative involved in the war, they may feel a greater sense of anxiety and grief, feeling lonely and abandoned.

Although it’s difficult for the parent at home, they should try not to show their sadness and keep the parent who is serving our country present in their child’s life. Bring children to a state of normalcy as quickly as possible.

We are all going through this together and during times of stress and overwhelm we must be there for our children. It is also essential that we do not take out our frustrations on our children. And for those kids who live in abusive homes and who are at great risk themselves, we must reach out and offer help to both parent and child.

Don’t be afraid to talk with your child about war and terrorism
Be open, honest, clear and accurate. Children do not benefit from 'not thinking about it' or 'putting it out of their minds.' It is important, however, how you talk about this. Your children will hear some of your conversations with friends, family and your spouse. They may be hearing some of what is on the news because you have on the TV. It is important to make sure that you talk with your child. You should be the healthy filter of information for your child.

Find out what your child thinks and feels
An important first step in talking with your child is to find out what they have heard and how they feel about that. Young children often make false assumptions about the causes of major events. Often these distortions will magnify his or her sense of fear and make your child more likely to have persisting emotional or behavioral problems. Correct their misperceptions with simple, age-appropriate explanations.

Take your child’s lead on when, what and how much to say
After you have some sense of what your child knows and how they feel, gauge your answers to their concerns. You do not need to be too detailed or comprehensive. In fact, you may find that the child just acts disinterested or seems to ignore what you are saying. If you let the child control when you discuss this – directed by their questions – you will find that you will have many, many short discussions and not one “big” talk. These little discussions make it easier for the child to digest this huge emotional meal.

Don’t feel that you have to have all the answers
Some aspects of this will forever remain beyond understanding. You can explain that you just don’t know – and that sometimes we will never know why some things happen. Help teach them that hate can lead to senseless cruelty. If your child sees that you struggle to make sense of this, their own struggle to do so becomes easier. And when they see you continue to be a solid and caring parent – even when you don’t have the answers - they actually feel safer. The unknown becomes a less frightening thing.

Reassure your child

Many children and -- many adults are frightened. The war has shattered our sense of safety. Your child may have fears about personal safety. Reassure your child. Your home and community are safe. Steps are being taken to make things safer.

Limit your child’s exposure to media coverage

Watching the images of this over and over only won’t help your child. In fact, it may make this worse for them. Young children are very vulnerable to this. Children six and under may actually think that there are bombs going off in their yard. If they do watch the news, watch with them and then discuss it. Ultimately, the goal is to decrease the traumatic power of these images and that is very difficult when the images permeate the media.

Resume normal patterns of activity at home as soon as possible

It is helpful to keep routines. If these events disrupt the family structure, events it can be even more disturbing for children. The sooner there is a familiar structure and predictability to your child’s life, the sooner she or he will feel safe. When traumatic events disrupt a child’s life, the harder it is to recover.

Anticipate some “regressive” behaviors following traumatic events

When children feel overwhelmed, confused, sad or fearful, they will often “regress.” And
so do adults. You may see a variety of symptoms in your child: these include anxiety (or fearfulness,) sadness, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, increased impulsivity or aggression. These symptoms are usually short-term (days or weeks) and tend to resolve with reassurance, patience and nurturing. When children feel safe, they will be most likely start to "act their age."

Some children will be more vulnerable than others

Not all children will react to these events in the same way. Some children may seem disinterested and, no changes in their behaviors will be noticed. Other children may have profound symptoms that seem out of proportion to their real connection to these events. We can not predict how a given child will react but we do know that children with pre-existing mental health or behavioral problems are more likely to show symptoms. We also know that the closer a child is to the actual traumatic event (i.e., if a loved one was injured or killed) the more severe and persisting the symptoms will be.

Your reactions will influence your child’s reactions

Your child will sense emotional intensity around them and will mirror your emotional responses and interpretations. Younger children will try to please you – sometimes by avoiding emotional if they sense that it may upset you. Try to gauge your own sense of discomfort and directly address this with the child. Children find it reassuring that they are not alone in some of their emotional upset. Make sure they hear, many times, that even though it may be upsetting it is still important to share feelings and thoughts with each other.

Don't let anger be misdirected
Don’t let your frustration, anger and rage be misdirected.

Don’t hesitate to get more advice and help
If you feel overwhelmed or if you see persisting problems with your child don’t hesitate to reach out for help.

Additional resources to help you teach your children to cope with war:

American Academy of Pediatrics
Advice on Communicating with Children about Disasters

American Psychiatric Association
Helping Children Cope with War

National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Parents on Talking about Terrorism and Children

If your children need additional help, here is a list of resources for you to contact:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

American Psychological Association

Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS)

Emergency Services and Disaster Relief Branch

The ChildTrauma Academy

National Association of School Psychologists

The National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology

Some of the information contained on this page was reprinted with the permission of The ChildTrauma Academy.



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