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Helping Kids Cope with War

April 3, 2003
Web posted at: 1:29 AM EST (0629 GMT)
Dr. Dana Weinstein
Dr. Dana Weinstein  

On March 19, 2003, the U.S. began military strikes against Iraq. How are your children reacting to the war? Are you worried about the graphic images they're seeing on TV? How do you talk to them about what's going on? CNN's Lisa Porterfield talked to Dr. Dana Weinstein, a child psychologist who consults with parents and teachers on behavioral and developmental issues. Dr. Weinstein offers parents and teachers insight and tips on how to help kids cope with the war.

CNN: How do children react to news about war? Does the age of a child make a difference in how he/she will react? What kinds of behavior should parents/teachers expect to see in their children?

Weinstein: In general, children's reactions to war are going to be similar to children's reactions to any type of traumatic situation. Overall, children, particularly younger children, have a tendency to react to traumatic situations with changes in their behavior. Emotional reactions to war would include increased feelings of anxiety, fear and worry and an increased feeling of stress. But, how these feelings are expressed will depend on the age and developmental level of the child. And the degree to which children are affected by war will depend on how much trauma they personally experience and are exposed to.

All kids have a tendency to respond to trauma with an increase in activity level, a decrease in concentration, outbursts of anger, unusually aggressive behavior, withdrawal, or an increase in somatic complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches. But, in terms of age differences, preschool through elementary age kids are likely to regress. You might see an increase in tantrums, baby talk, whining and bed-wetting. And you're likely to get asked a lot of questions, particularly about death, especially if the child knows someone who is involved in the war or has seen details of the war on television.

Middle school age children are more likely to want to talk about the gruesome details of the situation. In terms of how war could impact their emotional state, you may see kids having more difficulty with trust, in part, because this war involves terrorism the September 11 attacks really changed people's perspective on feeling safe and trustworthiness has become an important issue for a lot of kids.

Unlike younger children, middle school and high school age kids are more likely to deny that the war is impacting them because they may not want to admit that they're feeling scared or anxious. They don't want to appear vulnerable.

With regard to high school kids, they're better able to understand specifics regarding the war. As a result, you may see more specific anxiety about particular people and particular groups. And though teenagers may not want to appear vulnerable, because they're better able to understand the ramifications of war, they may have a stronger emotional reaction to war than younger kids. You also might see an increase in substance abuse with adolescents who experience a high degree of anxiety and depression.

CNN: What advice would you give parents/teachers for talking to their children about war?

Weinstein: One of the most important things parents and teachers can do is reinforce the idea of safety and security, both on a personal level and a global level. How you do this depends on the age of the child, but you should stress the fact that they're safe where they are, and that there are people in place who are working to make our country safe, like the president and the military.

Another important thing adults can do is give kids the opportunity to talk about their feelings no matter what they are. Parents and teachers should check in with their kids to see how they're coping. They should find out what their children know about the war and if they have any questions. And keep in mind that kids may need time to cope. As a result, they might ask the same questions or talk about the same events over and over again. If this happens, adults should stay calm, be patient, and acknowledge and validate their children's feelings of anger, fear, sadness and confusion.

The types of questions kids will ask regarding the war will depend on their developmental level and the degree to which they're aware and personally affected by the conflict. When adults talk to kids about war they should use simple and accurate terminology. For example, if they're talking about a person dying, use the terms death or dying, rather than telling a child that the person has gone to sleep or disappeared. The specific language they use will depend on the age of the child, but the most important thing is to keep it simple.

Parents and teachers need to help children develop a realistic understanding of what's going on with the war, because sometimes kids, especially young kids, can have a distorted perception of reality. Kids can misinterpret things. For example, kids might take an event they've heard about and equate it with a TV show or movie. So, it's important for adults to help them distinguish between fact and fiction. They should emphasize that, unlike on TV or in the movies, war is real and people really are being hurt and killed. This type of conversation can be a good opportunity to teach kids about empathy and compassion. But getting kids to understand the reality of war can be hard to do, particularly if a child has seen a lot of violence through media and has become desensitized to it.

Also, if kids talk about their anger regarding the war, use this opportunity to empathize with them and to help them develop compassion and empathy. Talk to them about the negative feelings they might have regarding those behind the war, and help them to not generalize their angry feelings to large groups or to innocent people that are not involved in the conflict. It's important to point out that no matter how kids may feel about Saddam Hussein, they need to know that the Iraqi and Muslims in their community are not bad people.

CNN: Should parents and teachers share their own opinions and feelings about the war?

Weinstein: It's okay for parents and teachers to talk about some of the details and their opinions of what's going on, but they should be careful how they choose to talk about their feelings regarding the situation. Kids need to know that they can discuss their feelings and that parents and teachers are focused on helping them. Adults should gauge their own feelings and emotional reactions to the war so they don't overwhelm or burden children with their own anxieties. So, if adults are feeling anxious or overwhelmed by what's going on, they should seek out the support of other adults or professionals, and not rely on their kids for this support.

CNN: Should parents/teachers let their children watch television or read about the war?

Weinstein: In general, parents should limit the amount of violent and upsetting images that their kids are exposed to. These images can be particularly disturbing to young children. But if parents are going to let their kids read or watch television coverage of the war, it's important for parents to be involved in the process. They should read along and watch with their children so they can discuss the information in the moment, to help their kids interpret what they're reading or seeing.

If your children are concerned about American soldiers who are serving overseas
during this time of war, visit for information from the U.S. Department of Defense on how they can support overseas troops.

CNN: What should parents do if the child knows someone who is fighting overseas?

Weinstein: Again, parents and teachers should give these kids an opportunity to talk about their thoughts and feelings. They should try to reassure their kids to the extent that they can, like talking to them about the safety measures that are in place to protect those overseas. But, if for some reason, they don't feel that they're the right person to listen to the child, they should help find the child an outlet, such as a counselor. They can also encourage kids to express their feelings in personal journals and through other creative outlets.

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