Helping Children Cope with War

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

School personnel need to provide a safe, supportive environment where children feel free to discuss their thoughts and feelings about war. By listening carefully and answering questions on a level students can comprehend, children will learn that they are not alone in their concerns. Involving students in activities can help them deal with their emotions. For example, have the children read stories about how other children have dealt with war or difficult situations. Together make a list of coping skills they can use to deal with their feelings. It may include exercise, singing, reading, talking to someone, dancing, hugging a pet, looking at pictures, taking a nap, playing a game, riding a bike, etc. Other ideas are to have them create a picture, poem, story, banner or play explaining their thoughts.

Children are particularly vulnerable if they live in an area where terrorists have been active or if a loved one is in the military. Provide support groups for these children by having them meet in small groups, once a week. In addition, if students share a culture with the adversary or hold differing points of view from the majority of students, they may need additional consideration. Educators need to promote sensitivity to other races, cultures and religions to help prevent stereotyping of any group. See the article, Learning the Value of Diversity.

The following information may be shared with parents or caregivers, especially those who have a relative in the military.
  1. Encourage parents to discuss the war with their child, yet avoid burdening their child with adult concerns. Stress that they should provide information on a level their child can understand. When adults refuse to talk about the war, a child may become more anxious and insecure. Since children have vivid imaginations, the scariest thing for a child is not to have any facts about what is happening. For young children, show them a map or globe and point out where war is being fought. Say things like, "The war is far away." Or, if a relative is involved you could say, "Your mom (dad or uncle) is only one of thousands of troops who are well-trained and well-prepared." If you don't know an answer to your child's question, be honest and say, "I don't know, but I will try to find out." Discourage your child from forming biases against people of certain nations, races or religions.

  2. A child's need to be heard and understood should be a parent's primary consideration. When adults talk too much, instead of listening, they cannot be responsive to the child's thoughts and feelings. If a child seems hesitant to talk, you could say, "What have you heard about the war?" "What do you find yourself thinking about when you hear the news?" Or, "What do you think other children might be worrying about?" Listen with respect to a child's concerns and ideas and be supportive in your response. Avoid put-downs like, "You shouldn't feel that way," or "You're just being silly." Instead, say, "That is a worry." If the child seems confused about something, you could say, "That's important, tell me more." Validate feelings by repeating what you hear without judgment. You might say something like, "War IS scary" or "I'm glad you were able to talk to me about this. It's normal to feel anxious."

  3. If your child appears to be unusually sad, yet will not talk about what's wrong, use puppets, do role plays, or read books on emotions such as Kelly Bear Feelings that encourage children to express emotions in an open-ended way as well as to identify coping skills. Remember that distressed children may need more physical closeness, so make sure you are available to provide hugs and reassurance. You could also ask your child to draw a picture or write a story about what he or she is thinking. Older children may want to keep a diary or journal which they may or may not want to share. If a loved one is involved directly in the war, have the children make pictures, write letters, or bake cookies to send him or her.

  4. If a child's views differ markedly from the parent, avoid comments like, "You don't know what you're talking about!" or "When you're older, you'll understand." Instead, listen and restate what he or she said and try to understand their point of view. Ask for clarification in a respectful way. After you have listened, you may want to say, "We see things differently. My view is..." Rather than saying, "You're wrong!" When you model respect for your child's ideas, you are more likely to receive respect in return.

  5. Continue normal family routines and schedules by taking one day at a time. Simplify your life by removing unnecessary stresses. For example, put some projects aside, decline extra responsibilities like being an officer in an organization, and take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, exercise, and by eating well. Provide yourself and your child opportunities to do enjoyable things like participating in recreational activities, playing games, taking walks, reading together, etc. Speak in hopeful terms, and as much as possible model calmness and stability.

  6. Watch the news only once a day and do not insist that the children watch. If your child becomes upset by a news report, take time to process his or her thoughts and feelings. You may want to listen to or watch news reports when the child is not present. In addition, realize that cartoons and other shows that glorify violence can have a negative impact upon your child's sense of security. Also, if your child is within hearing distance, be careful what you say to others in person or on the phone.

  7. Do not make promises that you cannot keep. Avoid saying things like, "Everything will be fine," or "Your mom (dad, relative) will not get hurt." Instead say, "I don't know what will happen, but I will do everything I can to keep you safe." or "We can deal with anything because we care for one another."

  8. Separation and war worries can cause emotional reactions that contribute to sadness and anger. Moodiness and irritability are natural reactions to a loved one being absent and in danger. If your child's reaction is extreme, for example, he or she is obsessed with weapons, highly anxious, withdrawn, hostile, or exhibits sleep and eating disturbances, you may need to seek professional assistance. Additional articles that may be helpful include, Helping Children Cope with Loss and Educator's Guide to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website []. 4/03

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