It is certainly understandable that parents, teachers, and care-givers are struggling with feelings about how to communicate with children about the current world crisis. War is an emotional issue for all of us. Anything with such potential for loss and devastation is bound to reawaken any previous fears and significant losses in our own lives. We hear news of war with our ears of today and our hearts of the past. Some adults have even told us they are having trouble sorting out their own needs from those of the children.
As with all concerns about childhood, there aren’t magic answers. We are glad to share with you some of our reflections about the Persian Gulf crisis, and we hope these thoughts may be helpful for you as you continue to find your own ways of meeting the needs of the children you love and care for. We also hope you realize that you’re giving important care to your children just by your wanting to be helpful to them.
Assurance That Adults Will Take Care of Them
In any fearful time, children need to know that they will be safe and that the adults will take care of their needs. Young children are, by nature, self-centered. If they weren’t they wouldn’t survive. Naturally, they need to be able to trust that their needs will be met. We must protect our children as much as we can, even from our own adult anxieties.
One director of a day-care center told us she could feel comfortable saying to the children, “I’m sad about the war, and I’m worried, but I love you, and I am here for you.” We each have our own ways to say those kinds of messages to children, and sometimes that’s even through just our hugs and our warmth.
We can also offer our assurance through our efforts to keep things as normal as possible. During times of stress and uncertainty, young children need most of all to have constancy and predictability in their lives. Knowing what to expect comforts them. Continuity, familiar routines, and traditions can go a long way in providing security and can serve as anchors for families and schools.
Limiting Our Own Television Viewing
It’s very tempting to get drawn into watching and listening to war news all day and all night, but healthy adults can and must resist that temptation because it can lead to a feeling of helplessness and despair. There isn’t anything that casual war observers can do to help make a difference in the Persian Gulf, but there’s a lot we can do right in our own homes.
One is to limit the time we devote to television and radio and invest it in being with our children. They can use our attention far better than all the newscasters in the world put together. And as we do something with our children (and grandchildren), the feeling of helplessness about the war can give way to a sense of hope that our children can grow to be adults who will resist the temptation of abusing others.
How Much Do We Tell the Children?
Even if we wanted to, it would be impossible to help young children understand war. It’s too horrible. It’s too frightening. If they ask any questions at all, they might ask, “What is a war?” and, “Are you going to be in it?” Sometimes answering a question with another question gives us a better idea about what a child is concerned about.
“What is a war?”
“What do you think a war is?”
Each child will then respond from whatever his or her life experience may be. If it’s “I don’t know,” then the simplest reply is best. For example, “War is a very sad, unpleasant thing, and it’s not your fault. Children may fight and they may pretend about war, but children don’t make real wars, and I hope when you grow up you’ll never have to make one either.”
Even though young children should be protected against seeing scary images or hearing graphic details on radio or television, older children are probably aware that something serious is happening in the world. They may have heard about the war from other children. Maybe, even more importantly, they’ve sensed that the people they love the most--their parents and care-givers--are worried and anxious. If parents don’t bring up the subject of the war to them, they may be left at the mercy of their misinterpretations. We heard about one child who was frightened that the bombs would fall on her father’s office. It helped her when her parents asked if she knew about the war and let her voice her fears so they could help her know the war is happening far away.
Some children will, because of their own personal fears, need to deny the gravity of such a thing as war. If a child chooses “not to think about it,” we must respect that decision. Years later, that child, grown older, will be better equipped to deal with harsh reality. If forced to when not ready, he or she could feel severely abused.
Being Good Listeners
One of the best ways grownups help children is by being empathetic listeners. We have long believed that whatever is mentionable can be more manageable. If we want to encourage our children to share their concerns with us, then our questions can be more important than answers. The way we help our children “talk” is by showing the interest we have in what’s important to them.
Parents may want to ask their school-age children if they know why the news is on television so much, or if they know what the people on television are talking about. One mother told us she asked her 5-year-old if he knew what was on the news, and she was surprised when he told her that “a man went into another ‘city’ and took it over ... he was told to get out and he didn’t ... so we made a war to make him get out.” She was stunned that he knew about the situation in such clear terms. She hadn’t mentioned it up to that time, thinking it would be better to wait until he brought it up. Where had he heard about it? “From the kids on the school bus,” he told her. Her question gave both the mother and son a good springboard for their discussion, and it also gave them a stronger foundation for continued talks in future years for whatever may be important to share.
Listening doesn’t only happen through our ears. Children have many ways to let us know that something upsets them. People who are close to children can trust their instincts to know when their children need reassurance and help from them, and they can also trust that their children have ways to let them know when they’ve heard enough.
When we can be open to whatever our children tell us, we will probably find that the current news of world stress has triggered some other worries they’ve had at home or at school, so families may be able to benefit in may ways from these discussions.
Concerns About Children’s War Play
Playing about war is very different from having a real war. Play is one of the important ways children can work through their concerns. Of course, war play can become scary or unsafe, and at times like that children need to know adults are nearby to help reassure them, to stop the play when it becomes too scary, and to redirect the play into caring and nurturing themes, perhaps by suggesting the building of a hospital for the wounded people or tents and homes where the soldiers could go to eat and sleep.
Helping Children Deal With Their Everyday Conflicts
Maybe, most important of all is helping our children find peaceful resolution to their everyday conflicts. Anger is a natural and normal feeling, in families and among friends. Besides allowing children the right to their anger, we can also help them find healthy things to do with their angry feelings--things that don’t hurt others or themselves or damage things. We adults can help them think about creative and constructive solutions to their conflicts. If we can help children deal with their angry feelings in healthy ways, we are giving them useful tools that will serve them all life long and helping them to be the world’s future peacemakers.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 1991 edition of Education Week as Helping Children With Scary News