AMERICA AT WAR: HELPING CHILDREN COPE
Now that America is at war against Iraq, an edge of anxiety and uncertainty pervades our nation, and children are quick to pick up on the resulting tensions and concerns. With the constant threat of terrorism since the tragedy of September 11, 2001, most parents have had practice in helping their youngsters cope with violence, confusion, and uncertainty. As your child’s first and most important teacher, recognize that this is another “teachable moment,” albeit a difficult one. Here are a few suggestions that you may find helpful:
*** All children and their particular circumstances are unique; therefore, it’s important that we sensitively respond to the individual needs of each child. While a few children may not seem particularly bothered by the war, others may experience a range of emotions including fear, worry, doubt, confusion, sadness, anger, and guilt. Every youngster will benefit from an extra dose of adult sensitivity, wisdom, and love during this time of complicated international strife. Keep family routines uninterrupted and enjoy your usual times of family fun.
*** In a way that is appropriate to your child’s needs and level of development, be there when he needs a hug or seems troubled by fears. Be generous with heartfelt smiles and affectionate touches. Your caring attention and physical touch will reassure him and help him feel safe in expressing all his feelings and thoughts.
*** Observe carefully and listen attentively for clues from your child about her inner world. Her tone of voice, body posture, facial expression, indirect questions, or comments may help you out. Younger children might express their concerns in behaviors such as withdrawal, clinging, or irritability, rather than words. Because of limited language ability, they may benefit from drawing pictures or acting out their worries with toys. A sensitive adult might use an open-ended question, such as, “Would you like to tell me about your picture?” to gain insight into a younger child’s thoughts.
*** Older children are likely to state opinions or ask questions about the war. In addition to anxieties, they may display qualities such as pride, confidence, faith, and compassion for all those killed and injured during the conflict. They may also want to affect the situation by helping out—a healthy response that should be appropriately encouraged. This might involve reaching out to victims or military personnel by sending gifts or monetary aid, writing letters, saying prayers, or offering other forms of support. Younger brothers and sisters might also ask to participate. Encourage such gestures; they foster a healthy sense of control and compassion while aiding children in working through their feelings.
*** According to Purdue University’s Dr. Judith Meyers-Walls, media images of troops deploying for war can be confusing to young non-military children. When they observe other children saying goodbye to family members, they may become anxious, thinking the same thing may happen to them. “It was a common misunderstanding in the Persian Gulf War,” says Meyers-Walls, “and the same problem is happening today.” As a parent, be on the lookout for such confusion and clear it up.
*** In a way that is appropriate to the developmental level of your child, feel free to share your personal viewpoints about the war. It’s okay to let children know that you find a situation frightening or dismaying. Be honest and realistic. You cannot guarantee that the violence will be confined to Iraq. The war could spark other international conflicts and terrorism may become more prevalent on American soil. Strive to find a balance between helping a child feel safe and acknowledging the existence of danger and evil. Your honesty opens lines of communication that will help your child work through her own thoughts and emotions.
*** Avoid talking unnecessarily about war or other acts of violence in a young child’s presence. Unnecessary exposure to televised coverage of such events is also harmful. Why give a child an overdose of information that would likely promote anxiety?
Remain calm and in control. Children react strongly to the feelings of parents, caregivers, and teachers. Even very young children pick up on adult uncertainty, helplessness, sadness, and anger. You cannot hide your feelings, but you can rise to the occasion and exercise your innate courage and strength. The little ones in your care, and older children, too, are depending upon you for stability in a time of uncertainty.
Prepared by Sam Quick, Ph.D., Human Development and Family Relations Specialist; Carole Gnatuk, Ed.D., Child Development Specialist; and Alex Lesueur, Jr., M.S.L.S, Staff Support Associate.