Talking to kids about war

Lately, I find myself hiding the morning newspaper so my three kids won’t have to face war images that fill the pages. But no matter how hard I’ve tried to protect them from the harsh realities of war and terrorism, the images are everywhere. And with more than 4,600 reservists from Illinois already deployed we’re forced to explain why our friends and neighbors are gone and what they’re doing.

When my 4-year-old asked me why her friend’s dad, in Afghanistan, doesn’t just kill the bad guys and come home, I knew I needed help.

Dr. Judy Linger, a child psychiatrist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, advises parents to first get in tune with their own level of anxiety. “You have to evaluate where you’re at and how you’re communicating with your child, especially nonverbally,” Linger says. “And when you do talk to your child, you have to keep it at the kid’s level, making sure to use words that they understand.”

Amy Singer’s Marine husband, Scott, left in late February for what may be a year or more in Kuwait.

She has explained to her 3-year-old that Daddy is gone with the Marines, similar to when he went for a reserve weekend. She also explained, Daddy is safe but would be gone longer this time. She didn’t think the preschooler was ready for any additional details, but her 9- and 10-year-old boys were. She has explained to them exactly what Dad is doing overseas. Since he serves in a wing unit, and the military wants to protect the expensive airplanes, he’s safe, she tells them.

“Kye [10] watches the news and reads the newspaper at school, so he really understands a lot of what’s going on,” Singer says. But her two younger boys are not ready to handle actual war news, so Singer keeps the television news off at home and doesn’t let them read the newspaper.

For younger children, this is the approach Linger advocates. “Be very, very careful of the level of television for younger children and limit their viewing of war,” she cautions.

Older children, however, want more details about where their loved one is and what his or her daily life is like. Knowing what’s happening in the country where their parent is serving allows some older children to feel more in control of the situation.

But no matter what your child’s age, if he or she is in school, keep the teacher and the principal informed.

Karen Poyner of Geneva is the wife of an Army Reserve officer in Afghanistan. Her 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son watch the the moring news before school to see if there’s any update on the area where their dad is located. “It’s their choice to turn on the news,” Poyner says. “They could be watching cartoons, but they like to know what’s going on.”

When it comes to the questions her teens ask, Poyner answers them as honestly as possible. “Brian [her husband] writes them from Afghanistan and he’s very honest with them about what’s going on. We’ve always been very upfront with them. But we don’t talk about death because that’s more than they can handle right now.”

Helene Block Fields of Downers Grove, an expert with several decades of experience teaching child development and parent education classes, stresses that being honest with your children and providing details within their level of understanding is crucial. “When you talk to children, you have to ask them what they understand of all this. Then you have to rephrase what they said and summarize it back,” Fields says. “Carefully identify the child’s concern and address it, but remember that this is a child, not an adult, and they don’t have the language capabilities and experiences that we do to handle this information.”

If they have questions and need answers, Fields suggests you give them the correct information and let them know it’s OK to feel scared or angry. But reassure them as much as possible that they are safe and things will be OK. “You can tell them that this is a hard time for everyone and be there for them,” she says. “It’s important for parents to be as solid as they can and to make yourself available to them.”

Singer knows her kids take their cues from her. “I think that Kye picks up his feelings from me. If I’m OK, he’s OK. If I’m stressed, he’s stressed,” she says. Parents trying to be strong, may need someone to help them deal with upset or worry. Talk to your doctor about getting help from a counselor or therapist.

Fields also suggests creating other outlets besides conversation for children too young to communicate well with words, an approach Linger also advocates. “Give them opportunities to express their concerns and what they’re feeling through art, dolls, puppets or playacting. This will give them a chance to express themselves and allow you to assess their level of anxiety,” Linger says.

Dena Provenzano of Darien, whose husband is with the Army in Afghanistan, uses these approaches with her 5-year-old son and 20-month-old twin boys. “We did a lot of role- playing to communicate because Tino [her 5-year-old] didn’t want to talk about it. We actually wrote down phrases he could say to communicate instead of screaming and lashing out in anger.”

If your efforts to communicate with your child don’t seem like enough, and your child is showing a high level of anxiety over the news of war, Linger suggests talking with your pediatrician for a referral to a qualified therapist.

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