How to Talk to Your Kids About War

War is a fact of life, regardless of whether or not you have a family member in the military. Eventually, your children will start to ask about it, so here’s your game plan for fielding their tough questions.

How to Respond

“Mommy, what is war?” That simple question becomes so complex when it’s being asked by an innocent child, but if they’re asking, it’s best to take the child’s lead and provide some explanation, says Kelly Caci, who’s on the executive board of the New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP), and practices at the New Windsor School in Newburgh, N.Y. “Kids will see things in the newspaper or on TV -- they’re exposed to that information,” she explains. “Parents are afraid that it’s going to require a long conversation, but most of the time the child is able to move on as long as they have the question answered.”

So what’s the best way to do that? “The way to describe war is dependent upon the child's age and maturity,” explains Carole Lieberman, M.D., a Beverly Hills-based psychiatrist and author of Coping with Terrorism: Dreams Interrupted. Age 5 or 6 is a good age to start, she says. “At young ages, war can be explained in terms he'll understand, such as two kids fighting over a toy on the playground or fighting to go first in line for some fun activity.” Another analogy you can use is to explain war as one country being a bully and trying to frighten or physically attack people, she adds. “When children get older, more detailed explanations of what each side believes in and is fighting for can be discussed,” she says.

“What is terrorism?” The nature of our current wars and the post-9/11 world we live in means that kids will encounter the concept of terrorism at an early age, says Lieberman. “When they are of school age, if not before, you need to begin talking about terrorism because this is something that they will have to continue to deal with, probably throughout their life,” she says.

The conversation should begin with letting them know that as the parent, you’re going to always be there to keep them safe. “Kids need to understand that the parent is always looking out for the child,” says Caci. “You don’t want to make kids overly anxious about everyday things like going to the mall,” she says. But as they get older, you should teach your children to be aware of his or her surroundings and report anything suspicious to an adult.

If You Have a Family Member in the Military

“Mommy/Daddy, why do you have to go away?” When a parent is deployed and has to leave for a long period of time, naturally children need to be told why. Caci suggests explaining to children that being a soldier is a very special job in which a person gets to help and protect others, and that they are specially trained to stay safe.

“Discussions and reassurances go a long way in calming a child’s fears about the deployed parent,” says Caci, who is currently working with NYASP to develop an online tool kit of resources for military families and educators. “Children should also be encouraged to correspond with the deployed parent via writing letters or email, sending packages, etc.” Another idea: Providing a child with a calendar so he or she can mark off the days until the parent’s homecoming.

Listen closely. As a parent in a military family, you should definitely monitor your child’s play, Caci says, as it often provides clues as to what he or she is feeling. “Kids sometimes act out things they are trying to figure out. You can use that as a venue to open up conversation,” she says. Other ways to get them talking about their anxiety over a family member going to war is by having them draw a picture of how they’re feeling and reading age-appropriate books on the topic together, Caci suggests. Consider I Miss You!: A Military Kid's Book About Deployment, My Dad’s a Hero and Night Catch, all appropriate for ages 4 to 8.

Advice for All Families

Be truthful. One of the worst things you can do when a child raises questions about war is to change the subject or tell them there’s nothing to be scared of. “Sometimes parents are afraid to talk to kids about the facts but my recommendation is to be as honest as possible in discussing the issue, while recognizing their developmental ability to understand it,” says Caci. In other words, be reassuring and definitely don’t ignore their concerns.

“Tell them that the military is very brave and that they are able to protect each other in most circumstances,” says Lieberman. “But, the whole truth is too scary for most kids. You need to find the fine line in between.”

Ultimately, what kids are looking for is to have their feelings validated, affirms Caci. Acknowledge that war is scary, or that someone’s parent dying is very sad. “It allows the child to feel okay about the feelings he or she is having,” she says, “so they can move on.”

Find a list of resources for military families here

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