The Impact of War on Children
Shortly after the United States declared war on Iraq in 2003, Brenda Sene and her family in Sherwood, Ore., tuned in to a local news program and witnessed one of many anti-war rallies going on in nearby downtown Portland. They saw some protesters burning the American flag, an action that completely unnerved Sene's 7-year-old son, Jared. "He was devastated," says Sene, a mother of four. "He could not believe someone would do that. He started to cry and said, 'Mom, why would they do that?'"
War is very real – to some older kids and adults, that is. But to younger children, war in a faraway land is impossible to comprehend. Yet, like Sene's children, they're constantly exposed to it through TV, newspaper and magazine images and other sources.
This exposure can cause stress and anxiety unlike they've ever experienced. Here, parents and experts offer some signs parents should look for in their kids and ways to help soothe their children – and even themselves – during such uncertain times.
"You can imagine what some of this stuff looks like to a child that's 5 years old, sitting 4 feet away from the TV," says Judy Singler, director of Cambridge, Mass.-based Mt. Auburn Hospital's employee assistance program, which offers suggestions to parents whose children are exhibiting signs of stress due to the war in Iraq.
Singler says parents mainly of elementary school students are calling her office for assistance. She says children between about 6 and 11 years of age are old enough to understand a little about the violence they see and hear, but still too young to recognize that the shooting and bombing isn't literally going to enter their living room.
Many of these children are having nightmares and not sleeping soundly; they're clingy and afraid to leave their parents' side, even to attend school; they're talking and thinking a lot about war and terrorism. Kids also are complaining of headaches and stomachaches, according to Singler, who has three adult children.
Kids see mayhem on TV and hear their parents talking in hushed tones, and they don't really get it. "What they get is the visual images, and they get them a lot," says Singler. "And they can easily go on overload."
Soothing Your Kids – And Yourself
Singler emphasizes there is no right or wrong way to react to a war or to mitigate a child's fear of it. But there are actions parents can take to decrease a child's stress level.
Experts and parents agree the key to helping kids – and themselves – is to communicate and face reality. In other words, talk about the war; avoiding it just leads to worse problems. "You can't pretend it's not out there; that'd probably be the worst thing," Singler says, adding even very young children pick up on the fact things aren't quite right.
"Parents are afraid, and their children are also afraid," says Naomi Drew, parenting expert and author of Hope and Healing: Peaceful Parenting in an Uncertain World (Citadel Press Books, 2002). And kids' fear and subsequent anxiety often stem from failure to discuss the issues foremost on their minds. So Drew devised a recipe of sorts – each letter in the word CALMING stands for an action a parent can take to help draw out and comfort her child.
Cast a net of reassurance; sit at the edge of your child's bed each night before he goes to sleep.
Ask your child how he's doing without offering too much information, especially to children younger than six.
Listen with an open heart; engage in active listening.
Make your home a place of peace, for example, by initiating family meetings.
Involve your child in volunteer activities, such as at a soup kitchen, to help them feel empowered.
Grace your family with calming rituals and unclog busy schedules.
Singler adds that pacifying kids on the spot is paramount. If a child awakens in the middle of the night from a nightmare, it's not OK to wait until morning to calm him down.
Tune out TV and Other Strategies
"The most important thing we can do right now … is to take care of us, from the inside out," says Drew, a mother of two adult children, whose Web site, www.learningpeace.com, offers parents and teachers tips to create more peaceful lives for themselves and for children.
"This is one of the most stressful times in recent history." So she recommends activities like prayer, yoga or tai chi – to do as an individual or a family – to help bring every member of the family closer together and to help them feel safe.
Sene, whose 7-year-old son broke down at the sight of people burning the American flag, has taken measures to help her children deal with the war in Iraq. Right after he witnessed that event, she sat down with her first-grade son to explain that people in this country have a right to peaceably demonstrate, though some go overboard and that's not all right. Sene now simply keeps the TV off and is careful to hide the sections of the newspaper with full-color photographs of the war's devastation.
Others are careful about what programs they tune into and when. Dorothy Bass, a 38-year-old mother of two, says though her 3-year-old, John, is completely unaware of the war, her 5-year-old, Capprin, hears bits and pieces of it in school. "[We] are more careful to watch shows, which are more talk-based than picture-based," says Bass, of Cambridge, Mass. "We watch The News Hour with Jim Lehrer while he (Capprin) is awake and usually playing in another room. Otherwise, we watch most news shows when he is asleep, sheltering him from the pictures of war vehicles, bombs and the like."
Sene and her 13-year-old daughter, Sarah, began keeping a journal at the outset of the war in Iraq. Sarah expresses her feelings about the war and then puts the journal on her mom's pillow each night. Sene then responds to Sarah's writings and places the journal outside her daughter's bedroom door for her to read every morning. "This is my proactive way to keep the communication open," she says. Sene, also an associate minister at Portland's First United Methodist Church, says fellow congregants have latched onto her journaling idea and find it helpful to their families, as well.
Sene's kids – like many in this country – have been especially worried about Iraqi children and their welfare during the war. So she and her husband, Daniel, urge their own kids to give a portion of their allowance to the United Methodist Committee on Relief that funnels donations in the form of blankets, medicines and other items to a pediatric hospital in Iraq. "I think it's important for the kids to feel empowered," she says, and not only empowered, but secure.
Sene says her family has turned inward of late, for example, inviting friends over for dinner instead of going out. The Senes also are taking more trips to the library and reading more books together rather than watching videos. "Our kids are needing a lot of reassurance," Sene says. "I'm not sure I'm doing [these activities] as much for the kids as we are for ourselves. No matter how young or how old you are, you need comfort still."