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AUGUST 2006

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Parenting During War
During war, parents play an important role in explaining events and monitoring their children's reactions. Photo by: Flaura Winston

Parenting During War
Talking to children about war.

-- Drs. Chiara Baxt and Flaura Koplin Winston

"?Terrorism?War?Missiles?Deaths?Injury?Bombs? Soldiers?Victims..."

Whenever they turn on the television or radio, open the newspaper, or listen to conversations about Israel and the Middle East, these are words that our children hear. Since the start of the Second Intifada, through September 11 and the Iraq War, and intensifying with Hezbollah's attack on Israeli Defense Forces, many of us live in fear of another attack, see horrific images, and feel helpless.

Fear, horror, and helplessness are the three intense emotions that are fertile ground for anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress. As we are personally coping through these difficult times, we need to remember that so, too, are our children and they need us now more than ever. When war and violence occur it is natural to have many intense reactions and some are protective - not wanting to talk about the war or avoiding unsafe situations. Some children can have extreme reactions, like feeling extremely anxious, angry or sad, and can exhibit behavioral changes ? excessive crying, irritability, hyper arousal or avoidance of situations that are safe. These extreme reactions can affect their day-to-day functioning including trouble with sleep and nightmares, new fears, trouble in school, or limiting time with their friends and playing.

War and violence have been an ever-present experience in Jewish history. In the face of these horrific events, Jewish families have continued to thrive. This resiliency and a survivor's mentality have been key features of the Jewish identity. Psychologists have learned from this collective wisdom and the personal experiences of those affected directly by war and violence. This research has told us that parents play a crucial role in how children respond to violence in their world. Some of the challenges of parenting in the face of renewed violence in Israel and the Middle East are described below. 

Challenge: How do I help my child feel safe?
Parents are central to a child's sense of safety and security. At a very basic level, children look to their parents for cues about what is dangerous, but also they learn how to respond to danger as they learn self-protection with their increasing independence. Some anxiety, sadness, or upsetting feelings are common reactions to the threats associated with war and violence. When your child feels this way, there are many things that you can do to help their child at these times to feel safer:

  • Limit your child's exposure to the sights and sounds of violence. Be sure to monitor TV, magazines, newspapers and internet access for images.
  • Be available to listen to them. Allow your child to talk about what is happening at her own pace. Be careful not to force them to talk with you about the violence. They might not be ready.
  • When your child wants to talk, show respect for their concerns and be ready to answer their questions directly, at their level. If you don't know the answer, let them know that you will find out the answer.
  • Take the opportunity to put the situation in balance. Make sure to highlight positive stories --- stories of caring, strength, and success.
  • Provide simple and clear information about what is being done to keep your child and others safe.
  • Younger children may want to draw or act out their fears rather than talk about them. Be creative.
  • Draw on the resilient coping mechanisms that your child has. Encourage her to do the things that she finds rewarding and comforting --- music, sports, drawing. Keep your child's world as normal as possible --- bedtime, school, play.
  • Add daily prayers for the Israeli soldiers and for the civilians (particularly the children) of Israel and Lebanon

Challenge: When should I worry about my child's reactions?
Parents serve as the day-to-day monitors of their children's reactions and it is their responsibility to address the needs of their child. It is normal for your child to have mild, short-lived reactions to hearing sad news. In a time of war, this can be more prolonged as multiple traumas may occur over time. Remember that children of different ages will exhibit different behaviors when they are upset and that they may not tell you (or even realize) that they are upset. The youngest children may show it by excessive clinginess, crying, or withdrawal from play, or have difficulty concentrating or sleeping while adolescents may become irritable, depressed, or act out with risky behaviors. Think about these three questions when you monitor your child:

  • Does my child have serious stress reactions?
  • Does my child's stress reaction continue for an extended period of time (particularly, longer than a month)?
  • Does my child's stress reaction get in the way of her play, school, or other normal activities?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, it may be appropriate to talk with your child's pediatrician or seek professional counseling. If you find that your reactions are getting in the way of your functioning or are going on too long, you might consider seeking help for yourself.

Challenge: How do I help my child understand the war in Israel and the Middle East? 
Current events are an opportunity for parents to share with their children their beliefs and values. The cognitive ability to understand what is happening will develop from the preschool age child thinking about ?good guys and bad guys? to the adolescent having a greater understanding of the sociopolitical context for armed conflict and its consequences. Parents can help children learn important lessons:

  • Help children to understand what is happening in the world at their developmental level. Reading books and playing with younger children or reading magazine articles with adolescents can help start a conversation.
  • Share your values and beliefs. Explain from your perspective what this increase in violence means for Israel and Jews around the world and what you think should be done about it.
  • Let your children know what you are doing about the situation. Model good citizenship and caring for others and show your child that you are contributing and communicating with your elected officials.
  • Help your child to take action through volunteer work to support an area that concerns them (e.g., donating clothes for displaced families) or involvement in youth political action.
  • Make sure to keep the discussion of violence in balance with the positive (or even normal) life that is continuing in Israel.
Challenge: What do I do if we have family and friends who live in the war zone?
When close friends or family are affected directly by war, parents are more likely to be experiencing their own emotional and stress reactions. There may be additional strains such as providing monetary or logistical support from afar. If this is happening for your family, you can take additional steps to help your child.
  • Help your child to understand what is being done to keep your loved ones safe. Provide concrete examples when possible (e.g., descriptions of what a bomb shelter is).
  • Children are keenly aware of their parent's emotions, be aware of your own emotional responses and seek support for yourself. Think about what they say on planes about the oxygen masks: put on your mask first so that you are able to help your child.
  • If a family member or friend is a casualty of war, seek grief counseling immediately. Traumatic grief (grief in the presence of a trauma) is a particularly intense emotion.
Parenting in the face of war can be extremely challenging. We fear for our children's safety and well-being and the future of their world as the sociopolitical context changes. By taking care of ourselves and our children, we take an active role in shaping the next generation.

Additional Resources
Below please find some additional resources on the impact of and talking with children about war.

  •   A guide from the Public Broadcasting System provides practical advice to parents on how to effectively communicate with their children, monitor their exposure to news and soothe their fears.
  • The Yale University's Child Study Center provides an excellent handout on talking to children about war. 
  • Children's National Medical Center in DC has developed a handbook for parents and includes suggested answers to many questions children have about war and disasters.
  • The US Department of Veteran's Affairs provides information about how children at different ages respond to war and what parents should monitor in their children by child age.
  • The Koby Mandell Foundation was created in memory of Koby Mandell who at 13 was brutally killed May 8, 2001, in a cave in the rocky countryside that surrounds the Mandell home in Tekoa. The Foundation's programs in Israel help bereaved families become stronger and keep their hearts open and spirits alive through fun and relaxing activities.

Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston  is a practicing pediatrician, professor of pediatrics, and  Scientific Director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Dr. Chiara Baxt is a child psychologist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and an investigator with the hospital's injury research center.

Previous Columns

Raising A Mensch Section Editor: Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston parenting @ pjvoice.com
Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston is a practicing pediatrician, professor of pediatrics and Scientific Director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She welcomes your comments, questions, contributions and suggestions for future columns.