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Home > Research Articles > Parents told to tell kids about war, but gently


Sunday, March 23, 2003


Parents struggling with how to help their children deal with the war in Iraq might start by talking to them, trying to keep their lives as normal as possible and limiting their exposure to TV coverage, therapists say.

"Normalcy, structure and continued expectations need to go on," said Charles Cooley, a psychologist at University Medical Center. "We can tell them there is a war, and we're fighting for certain reasons; be fairly specific, depending on how much the children absorb. Balance that with life going on: Mom and Dad are going to work, brothers and sisters are going to school, we have a good life, we're safe and secure, and we love each other."

Don't hide the war from them, said Dianne Farkas, a counselor and manager of Family to Family Connection Northwest. "To try to keep it from them makes it more of a mystery to them that then can be exaggerated beyond what it is," she said.

While emphasizing that how parents handle the issue with children should be dictated by the child's age and maturity level, and that the youngest children should be protected "quite a lot," Cooley said that repeated exposure to televised images is not a good idea.

"One of the worst things I think we did after 9-11 is had whole families sitting down and watching repeated images of these buildings being destroyed," he said. "We know that repeated exposure can precipitate trauma."

Additionally, "Children don't understand if they're watching what's live or they're watching a rebroadcast," said Jackie Harris, clinical director of Bridge Counseling Associates. After Sept. 11, she said, "kids thought it was happening over and over again."

The approach should be different with older kids, said Christopher Kearney, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"Adolescents will be naturally curious about what's going on," Kearney said. Watch the coverage with them and talk about it," he said.

Farkas said parents should be clear that "this is a scary time, that these are uncertain times, and that's not something we've had a lot of experience in."

"Children seek information, but it needs to not be given in an abstract manner," Harris said. "They don't understand how far away Iraq is. To my (7-year-old) son, California is super-far away."

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