The war in Iraq is dominating daily life unlike any other conflict since the Vietnam War. From the media to protesters on street corners to yard signs to everyday conversations, the “war saturation” makes it difficult for kids not to notice, or for parents to shield their children from it.
“It’s a very confusing time for kids as well as adults,” says Dr. David Wade, Psy.D, a psychologist with Gorge Counseling and Treatment Services. He says one of the most important things parents can do to help their kids deal with current events is to listen and ask questions.
“Listen to the kinds of questions kids are asking,” Wade says. “And it’s also important for parents to ask their kids questions, because some kids will become very quiet and not say a thing.” Wade recommends asking general questions to see what their child’s thoughts and feelings are about what’s going on.
While parents might have a desire to screen their children from the war, Wade says it’s important to remember that “kids are going to be exposed to this somewhere.”
“If (parents) totally try to avoid it, then my concern is, what’s the message being sent to the child? That it’s not okay to talk about it?”
Limiting television exposure is important, as well as Internet access, Wade says. But when a child sees images of the war, it’s important for parents to be there to discuss it — and to realize kids don’t have the cognitive skills to process information the way adults do.
“Kids — especially younger ones — will fill in the blanks,” Wade says. “If they see Baghdad being bombed, they’ll wonder if we’re going to be bombed.”
It’s also important for parents to recognize that some unusual or “different” behavior might be simply the way their child is trying to process events.
“Younger kids might raise the same question over and over and over again,” he says. “Rather than becoming irritated or brushing it off, take time to talk about it. This is how they’re trying to work it out.” Similarly, some kids might “work it out” through play.
Signs that a child may not be successfully dealing with their feelings and fears include difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, irritation and crying. Some children might become “clingy,” Wade says, or show regressive behavior.
“This is their way of looking for nurturing and comfort,” he says. If a parent sees these signs, “open the door for discussion,” Wade says.
Along with the war in Iraq, kids are having to process “the conflict we’re having here in the U.S.,” Wade says, referring to the war protests.
“Again, this can be very confusing for kids of all ages,” he says. “Talking about that is important.”
Wade stresses the importance of avoiding stereotyping or “grouping” people when talking to kids about the war. For instance, some kids might think that “all people from the Middle East are bad,” he says.
“It’s important for parents to be looking out for this and helping their kids understand not to make those generalizations,” he says.
One way to help make kids feel “normal” is to stick to regular routines and schedules.
“Eat meals together, maintain regular bed times,” Wade says. “These things can help children feel more safe. It makes things more predictable.” And focus attention on positive things going on.
“Look around,” he says. “What are people doing (that’s positive)? Don’t just focus on the negative. This can help kids with anxiety.”