As I write this article, the anxiety felt by citizens of our country is high. Our nation has entered war with Iraq. One cannot open a newspaper without headlines screaming about this war. Newscasts on television and radio report the invasion. Even comedians joke about the situation. Weeks ago citizens were told that sealing doors and windows with plastic and duct tape might help keep them safe in case of a bio-terrorism attack. In many states figures are reported about the number of sites vulnerable to attack.
I live in an area with a relatively small population and with a newspaper that reports the names of each man and woman from our greater community who are deployed to the Middle East. As a behavior specialist in the schools I work with children whose mom or dad has been sent abroad.
Most adults do not understand all that is happening surrounding this war. Children understand even less. Not knowing and not understanding leads to anxiety. Anxious children usually respond in one of two ways; some regress in their behaviors. That is, they revert to behaviors that they exhibited during an earlier life stage. Others act out.
One kindergarten child on my caseload sits in class crying and sucking her thumb, saying, “I miss my mommy. I miss my mommy.” A fifth grade boy refuses to do his class work because his dad will miss his birthday.
Parents and teachers feel frustrated and concerned about how to handle the children’s questions and behaviors during such a time of unknowingness. The following suggestions can assist adults in caring for themselves and their children during this time.
Keep television news to a minimum. If possible watch the telecasts during a time when young children are not present. For older children, once a day viewing is enough. Being bombarded with the same news story several times during a day increases anxiety.
Many adults enjoy listening to the expanded coverage on public radio stations. This is informative and the in-depth coverage can add perspective. For children who do not understand all that they hear, these longer news stories raise more questions and concerns than they answer. When they hear conferences with our leaders, they believe that what they hear is imminent.
Children pick up on the feelings of their parents and caregivers. If you hold discussions in front of your children, attempt to avoid the fear. Concern and fear are very different. Concern indicates an interest and a desire to learn more. Fear indicates helplessness and feelings of being a victim. Your fears increase your children’s anxiety.
When a child asks, “Will lots of people die in a war?” give an honest and brief answer such as, “Yes, many people die in wars.” Do not go into details about why this is so and what your beliefs are about this. The child only wants to know what he or she has asked. This can, however, be paired with a feeling statement like, “Yes, many people die in wars, and that makes me feel very sad.”
If your older child asks whether or not you believe in war, answer as clearly as you can. Older children are looking for guidance in forming their own beliefs. More than likely they will parrot, at some point in time, what you have said. Recently a child said to me, “My dad said he doesn’t believe in war but that he couldn’t do anything about it. I don’t believe in war either.” That gave me an opportunity to reflect some feeling statements back to him based on his words and his demeanor as he spoke. I responded by saying, “It sounds like you respect your dad, and it looks like you’re feeling sad because he feels helpless about doing anything.”
Children worry about their safety in uncertain times. Let them know where you will be during the day. You don’t need to make a big deal out of this. Just say, “Today while you are at school I will be at my office. Then I’m going to the post office before I pick you up from day care.” Children like to picture where their parents are.
If they ask whether there will be a war in our country, it’s okay to say that you don’t know. You might say something like, “I don’t know. I know that our leaders are trying to make wise decisions about it. What you need to know, though, is that I will always keep you as safe as I can, and our leaders want all of our citizens to be safe.”
Family rituals such as eating meals together without watching television, stories read before bedtime, and working together to clean the house on Saturdays are comforting. They are things that children can count on. In times of stress it is important to retain the rituals your family has so that your children are assured life continues to go on, regardless of what is happening in the world.
This is a time in the history of our nation when people have more questions than answers. It is a time when war is upon us. Unemployment is increasing, and some families are going through major shifts. It is a time where keeping life as stable as we can for our children will help them remain positive. They can focus on things children need to focus on--their relationships, their studies, their extra-curricular activities, and their play life.