How To Talk To Your Child About The War

I believe that children have certain rights. Like adults, they have the right to be respected, to hold an opinion, and to have their basic needs (for shelter, food, love, etc.) met. Unlike adults, I believe they have a final right, one that adults have outgrown, and that is the right to their childhood and the relative innocence that accompanies that time of life.

Having said that, I am not beginning an argument to keep children in the dark about the possibility of war. In fact, I’m not sure that’s something that could be done even if one were to decide it was the best course of action. The media and other community with which we surround ourselves are too effusive on the subject for us to presume we can fully shelter our children. However, I do think that as the primary responsible adults in our children’s lives we must find a way to help them achieve balance. This balance must encompass a preservation of their innocence whenever possible, it must allow for the communication of uncomfortable questions and feelings, and it must shelter the bond of trust between child and parent.

Preserve your child’s innocence

In order to help our children remain children in the face of possible war, it is of primary importance that we keep our own anxieties in check. Children look to their parents for a sense of safety and security, and expect their parents to be capable and calm about life. Thus, in order that our children are not unduly burdened with anxiety about war, it is critical that we do the internal work necessary to allay our own fears. In addition, we must allow our children to live in the moment, to continue their daily activities, to NOT think about the concerns that we have. Whenever possible, we must take the precautions we feel are necessary for our own and their safety, whatever those precautions may be, without instilling fear or burdening them with adult responsibilities.

Allow for the communication of uncomfortable questions and feelings

In large part this means being “tuned in” enough as a parent to recognize when your child is having feelings or harboring questions. Children aren’t always straightforward about these things. An eight-year-old boy asked his mother, out of the blue: “Mom. What are “packages?” Could there be a “package” under the snow?” (The child was referring to having heard that “packages” meant “bombs.” Out of context though, had this mother not been “tuned in” she might have thought he was talking about UPS packages.) Another child, 5 years of age, began waking up with nightmares. When asked what they were about, she described houses on fire and said there were always “airplanes in the sky.” A 16 year old became quiet and withdrawn, but the “doodles” in the margins of his class notes at school were filled with faces - all of them screaming. Children give us clues as to what they’re thinking if we’re paying attention to body language and facial expression, listening for tone of voice, and watching for other non-verbal clues like the ones that can be found in dreams, drawings, music, and writing. When a child is expressing a feeling, it’s not even necessary to know what it’s about, just to acknowledge it. Often this opens the door for the child to explore in depth what is going on internally.

Shelter the bond of trust between yourself and your child

Children trust their parents to communicate truthfully with them. Therefore, it is imperative to tell the truth if your child asks you a specific question about war. The rule of thumb here is to only answer the question that you’ve been asked. Stay away from opinion, unless you state it as such, and be as brief as possible in your explanation. If you don’t know the answer to the question, then say so and offer to look it up for, or with, your child. While this may seem to directly contradict the edict to preserve your child’s innocence, it is far worse for a child to feel as though she cannot trust her parent(s) than it is to hear the truth about facts.

Achieving a balance between these things is no small task, particularly when we don’t necessarily feel balanced ourselves. Therefore, I suggest that instead of thinking in terms of talking to your children about war, you think in terms of responding to them. In that way you won’t overstep and give them information that they’re not ready to hear. Nor will you overshadow their feelings with your own.

Try the following:

* Take time to talk to your child every day. Find out what feelings she had. Listen to what is going on in her life, with her friends, at her school.

* Ask questions instead of giving lectures. The best way to BLOCK communication is by lecturing. Instead, ask what your child has heard about war, or about terrorism. Pick a key word (Iraq, Al Queda, etc.) out of the media and ask if your child has any questions about that word.

* Listen to your child’s opinion about the war. It may be very different from your own. (One child of pacifist parents said, “But Mom and Dad, how are we going to fix the problem if we DON’T go to war?”) Rather than immediately imposing your own opinion on your child, allow him to elaborate on his ideas. Maintain a non-judgmental and open attitude so that your child can fully process all of his thoughts (and anxieties) without being censored. Afterward you can give your opinion: just make sure it’s stated as an opinion, not the only opinion.

The uncertainty about impending war weighs heavily -- especially on parents. Being a responsible parent (an already hard job) just got harder. Find support for yourself in this. Then you’ll be able to support your child and help him enjoy his childhood.