How to talk to grade-schoolers about war – and help them feel safe

How to talk to grade-schoolers about war – and help them feel safe

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What to expect at this age

When countries wage war, it can affect children profoundly. Even if the conflict is thousands of miles away, it still undermines a child's deep need to see the world as a safe and predictable place. What's more, if a relative or other loved one – or any person he personally knows – is called to duty, your child may harbor deep anxiety about his or her safety.

Grade-schoolers have a range of reactions to armed conflict. If he isn't directly affected by it and hasn't been exposed to repeated television and online images of battle or bomb-ravaged cities – or to a lot of scary talk about it in the schoolyard – a young grade-schooler may be relatively oblivious. A second- or third-grader, on the other hand, may be surprisingly tuned in. He may have questions – or he may not.

Children dealing with other traumas at the same time, such as a divorce or a death in the family, are more likely to feel anxiety. But even if everything else in his life is fine, your grade-schooler may glean enough information about the conflict to become worried and fearful. He may whine or cling more, have bad dreams, or complain about stomachaches. Or he may lose concentration at school or in sports. One of the best things you can do to quell anxiety is to limit your child's exposure to online and television news. Alarming newscasts increase a child's stress and may confuse him into thinking that a single wartime event happened over and over again.

Give him lots of hugs and cuddling, too. Encourage him to sleep with a favorite stuffed animal if he wants to, even if he hasn't needed his teddy bear in bed with him for the past two years. Watch for nonverbal signs of anxiety, such as disrupted sleep patterns, angry or sad drawings, or unusually withdrawn or aggressive play with other kids.

"The peak years of vulnerability from trauma are ages 6 to about 10," says James Garbarino, co-director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University and the author of Parents Under Siege. "That's when children have more independent access to information, because they're out of the home and in school. Also, the simple reassurances that work for very young children are transparent to an older child. Finally, their brains aren't physically mature enough yet to understand or manage arousal and fear." A young grade-schooler is old enough to understand that death is permanent, for instance, but not old enough to feel confident that even though he just saw news footage of bombed-out streets across the globe, his own neighborhood is safe.

In times like these, "One of the greatest losses – other than loss of life – is loss of control," says Bev Clayton, a social worker with the American Red Cross. "Children have almost no control over their lives, and when they see that their parents don't have control, either, it's frightening to them. So parents, even if they're upset, need to show control." The most important place to exert control is over your daily household routines. Go to the park as usual, put your child to bed on time, don't skip meals, and make sure his other caregivers are also following the normal order of the day. "You want to make sure your child feels secure, and routines do that," says Clayton.

How to talk to your grade-schooler about war

  • Be brief and reassuring. A grade-schooler may ask a question that seems only tangentially related to the current situation, such as "What happens when we die?" You can use his question as a springboard to talk about death, but in this case his underlying concern is most likely, "Am I safe?" Reassure him that he's in no danger, and that you and the rest of the family are safe, too. "We're all okay, and we're going to be okay" are important words for him to hear.
  • Validate his feelings. Resist the urge to say, "Don't worry." (Do you feel any better when someone says this to you?) His feelings are real, and he needs to be able to express them. Instead, you can say, "I know you feel worried because you've heard that our soldiers are fighting, but that's happening on the other side of the world."
  • Tell him adults are working to keep him safe. As adults, it's sometimes hard to be reassuring in the face of our own anxieties about an ongoing war and possible counter-attacks on our soil. But you can tell your child (and remind yourself) that lots of people are working to keep us safe. Talk about the ways that everyone from the President to our military troops to the local police is working to protect us and to bring the conflict to a speedy end. This group also includes you, his own parents. Acts of war may prompt a child this age to lose confidence in adults' abilities to keep bad things at bay, but you can tell him, "I look out for you whenever I know there's danger. Sometimes we learn about new dangers, so we start to look out for you in those situations, too."
  • Remember that he may not understand as much as he seems to. Grade-schoolers often appear to be more sophisticated than they really are. "If he sees pictures of bombs falling in Baghdad, a child living in a desert community – say, in Arizona – might not entirely understand that the TV images of Iraq are a long way away from his home," says Garbarino. Try to gently probe his understanding of current events so you can clear up any misconceptions.
  • Use plenty of nonverbal reassurance. Some of your best clues about your child's anxiety level will come out nonverbally – through play, sleeping and eating patterns, and whether or not he becomes whiny or clingy or regresses in other ways. It's important to respond to him nonverbally as well. If he seems worried, give him extra hugs and kisses. Above all, try to stick to normal routines to bolster his sense of security in his familiar daily life.
  • Help him take concrete action. For many children (and adults), responding concretely helps lessen anxiety. Your grade-schooler may want to sell lemonade and send the proceeds to a humanitarian organization, write a letter of thanks to our troops, or help make dinner for the neighboring family whose father is stationed halfway across the world. These actions can be extremely therapeutic, according to Flemming Graae, director of child and adolescent psychiatry services at New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, New York. "They help kids develop a sense of belonging to a community beyond their immediate surroundings, identify in good ways with people they've never met, and develop a sense of empathy. There are important developmental positives in translating kids' anxiety into good deeds."
  • Have confidence in your ability to help. As the parent, you have the challenge of helping your child feel secure when you may be feeling insecure yourself. Remember that limiting the focus on scary news reports, sticking to comforting routines, and finding concrete ways to help those directly affected will reassure you as well as your child. And when you help yourself cope, you're helping your grade-schooler as well. "Kids are wonderfully resilient," says Graae. "With good support, most children will do fine" – even in unsettling times like these.

What kids ask about war ... what parents answer

  • "What's happening?" Like adults, many grade-schoolers, especially older ones, want information so that they can understand and feel more control over a scary situation. Give your child the basic facts: "There's a leader in another country that our leaders don't trust. We're asking him to turn over all his weapons, and if he doesn't cooperate our soldiers may have to go there to take them from him." Ask if he has any questions. The older he is, the more details he'll want. Keep your answers honest but to the point.
  • "Why did people die?" Once your child has a grasp on the "whats," expect a lot of "why" questions, such as, "Why did the soldiers die?" and "Why can't they just put that bad guy in jail?" Keep your answers as straightforward as possible: "The soldiers died because their plane was shot down by the soldiers they were fighting against." As for how to answer more complicated – and fraught – questions about the current political situation and the morality of war, let your own convictions be your guide. Just remember to keep your answers simple, and to respond to specific questions rather than giving your child a history lesson on the trouble in the Middle East.
  • "Will we get hurt?" In the face of war, children of all ages worry about immediate risk to themselves and their loved ones. Similar questions could include, "If their country is fighting ours, would they shoot kids, too?" "Will they drop a bomb on our house?" "You don't have to go and fight them, right?" "Are Grandma and Grandpa okay?" Assure your child that, as disturbing as these events are, they're very far away and won't involve him. "The fighting is happening on the other side of the world, so you don't have to worry about bombs or anyone shooting you. I'm staying here with you – our lives aren't going to change. Grandma and Grandpa are fine, too. They live far away from where the war is happening. Do you want to call them on the phone right now and say hi?"
  • "Will Uncle Joe die?" It's hard to pooh-pooh this question when a family member or other military or medical personnel in your child's life truly are in harm's way. Rather than brush off his concerns with bland – and perhaps dishonest – reassurances (after all, can you really say with certainty that "Uncle Joe will be fine"?), acknowledge your child's very real fears. "You're worried that Joe might get hurt while he's helping our troops, aren't you?" You might say. "We all are, but Joe's with a lot of men and women whose job is to protect each other. We're praying that he comes home safe as soon as his own job is done."
  • "Are there monsters under my bed?" Even older kids may become newly afraid of strangers, monsters, darkness, or other unknowns. After all, these phantoms are easier to contemplate than the concept of war. Reassure your child about his stated fear: "No, there are no monsters under your bed or anywhere else. Let's go look together so you can remember that monsters aren't real." You don't need to explain anything about real-world "monsters." Your child just wants you to reassure him that he'll be safe in his own bed tonight.

Watch the video: Why The War on Drugs Is a Huge Failure (July 2022).


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