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Talking to Children About the War

A Supplement to an ABC TV Interview

March 24, 2003

The Basics for Little Children

You are the boss. Control their environment.

*Parents of little children must control their child's environment. For example, small children cannot run off into a strange neighborhood outside of adult supervision. So in dealing with war coverage be firm in fully controlling the TV, Car Radio and Newspaper.

Some children may tune into channels they are not allowed to see. Be firm in keeping the limits. You are the boss and much wiser. Children are naturally curious, but images of violence do not help them. Exploding bombs are not part of a child's required current events class. If you must tune in for your own interest and concern, try to do so when they are not around. Try to avoid the temptation to letting them come into the room with the TV and snuggle with you, as the scenes of war are on the TV. It is good to snuggle - change the channel.

If you are scared, they will be scared.

*Children can get access to "secrets." They will likely hear we are at war. Generally, small children take their cues from their parents. If you are tense, nervous and afraid, they will pick this up. Specifically, "If Mom or Dad is scared, it must be very scary." Fear and sadness in a parent can be "infectious" to a child who is naturally dependent on their parents.

Your child is not in danger. Explain that their loved ones and favorite places are not involved in the war.

*The war is not happening near the child. Since WWII there have been over 100 wars, but virtually all of them have been in developing countries. Children are concrete. If your immediate family is "not in harms way," then tell them. Perhaps mention that the fighting is "so far away we could never drive there in a hundred years." Explain that they are not going to see the war. Surprisingly, some rare children wonder if they are going to go into battle. Explain no one they love is going to the war and they are safe. "Mom and Dad are staying here with you." Simply, the war is "not near their neighborhood, family, home, family, school, church or friends."

True danger versus false danger in impulsive children

*Some parents might want to use this opportunity to tell impulsive children, who have no fears, about the true threats they face. Specifically, "the war will not hurt you, but you should not run in the street without looking since you could be hurt by a car." Or "you are safe from the bombs, but you could be hurt by climbing up our tree." Only mention one or two very relevant examples and only mention to impulsive children who are calm.

Keep the same routines with your children. Routines tell children life is structured and safe.

*When a child gets up at the same time, eats in a structured way, and has the same bedtime ritual, it tells the child that life is stable. Keep routines the same because it tells the child that nothing has changed and that life is not chaos. Children feel more afraid if their daily routines are disorganized. No household is perfectly organized--just keep it in mind.

Increase your affection and allow more dependence if they are exposed to war material.

*Be more affectionate and allow children to be more dependent if they are afraid of war exposure or other stress. A child will not feel alone when you are hugging them. If they have heard or seen war images, let them be more "clingy." And if they want to crawl up into your bed, which is very common, go ahead and let them. Many parents allow this when a little child is afraid of the thunder, and the thunder of war should be no exception. However, parents need to talk to each other privately about their romantic/sex life, fully and promptly, to make sure this is not lost due to this extra "third wheel" company.

Increase your child's exposure to concrete comforters. If your child has a favorite doll, pet, teddy bear or blanket, use them liberally.

A child has only three jobs: obey their parents, play and go to school (if old enough).

*During the events of 9/11 there was a debate about whether certain major sporting events for adults should continue. That was fully understandable, since as a nation we were grieving the loss of thousands of innocent people. However, we need to intentionally construct a different world for children, a sheltered world. They do have age specific dangers, and they should be told these dangers repeatedly and clearly. However, they must be protected from hearing about dangers that adults fear.

What does this look like in a home? Specifically, children should always be able to play. And when they are done playing, they should play more. They have their whole life to become miserable workaholics. If money is tight, do not mention it. If you fear being fired, do not mention it. If you think you might move, do not discuss this with small children until it is clear you must move.

Your military contacts are not necessarily their contacts.

*If you personally know someone that is in the military who is in "harms way," but the person is not part of the child's regular world, do not mention it. Your contacts are not your child's contacts.

The war was a decision and not simply anger and chaos.

*Like every war, some will feel that it was not the best option. Thankfully, we live in a country where people can criticize any aspect of the government. Yet, politics is not the issue here, but what is best for a child. Believing that the war happened "out of the blue" or due to mere political rage hurts the child. It tells them the world is chaotic, and this makes a child afraid. If you feel the child is aware of the war and needs a summary statement, consider: "Our President feels a bad man has some dangerous chemicals and wants to get rid of them to make us safer." Regardless of your ideology, I think this is President Bush's position in child talk. All that really matters in emotional terms is that you offer a statement that is simple and makes some sense. I will defer the content to your personal ideology.

Continue future fantasy talk and hope talk

*If your child dreams of being a builder, painter, or pro sports player, make it part of your conversation. Remind them of this interest and talk about it playfully. If you typically go to a certain place for family vacations, discuss it as part of your future plans. The goal is to help the child see a future, not merely a life frozen in the present.

If you are a family of faith, pray.

We know from research and thousands of years of history, that belief in a personal God may lift a child out of fear, and gives them a larger view of the world and universe. However, do not pray "scare prayers" in which you mention specific aspects of the war. Meaning, if a child does not know about bombs dropped or soldiers killed, I would not mention them. Kids see enough violence in a 1/2 hour cartoon.

Ask them questions and consider exploring verbal and nonverbal expression.

*Ask children regularly how they are feeling. They often may not be able to tell you if they are young. I ask my child patients if they are sad? Have worries? Scared? Mad? Happy? In other words, I ask them about basic feelings.

Try not to ask them with intensity or passion, since this will merely make them feel interrogated and overwhelmed.

Try to ask them about their feelings when you have 10 full minutes. Children can be slow to express deeper feelings, and often say, "I don't know," the first time you ask them. Having 10 minutes, allows you to hear the child without walking away as soon as they share their heart.

If your child seems afraid and is sucking their thumb or increasing bed wetting, you might want to guess or ask directly with gentleness. "You seem scared about something." "Did something you see on TV scare you?" Expect no verbal replies in a young child.

If you have the time, consider encouraging them to draw "anything," play "make up games" with you, or play with puppets. The content may expose you to their fears.

Another option is to ask them "what they see" or "what is happening" in pictures, scenes or paintings. If they are looking at a beach scene from a surfing magazine and they mention it looks like "fighting" - either the desert war is on their mind or you are fighting too much with your spouse at the beach.

Do not feel you have to be a professional and master these skills, I am merely offering ideas for those with extra time.

Distract children by having a life besides being fixed on CNN or MSNBC

*If you have time to spend with your child, I can think of a hundred better activities then meditating on the war. Make a meal together. Ride bikes. Go for a walk. Swim. Wrestle. Throw a ball. Play checkers. If you feel you want to be involved and think it serves your child to participate, consider writing letters to those that fit your ideology, e.g., nurses, soldiers, humanitarian workers or even poor children in the general region.

My best wishes for you and your children!

James Schaller, MD, MAR


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