Article

Helping Children Cope with War

Renowned expert and author Dr. Bruce Perry offers advice on how to help young children cope with and understand war.

By Bruce D. Perry MD, PhD
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2

ECT: Children who are seeing images related to war on the news are asking a lot of questions. How should teachers deal with these questions?

Dr. Perry: Give clear and accurate answers. All people, including children, find it easier to deal with the known rather than the unknown. It is very important, however, not to drown our children in the nonstop speculation and discussion that will be provided by the media.

On the other hand, some children are not asking questions but seem to be more tense and anxious than they had been before this crisis. Are there other signs to look for that suggest "war worry" in children? Should teachers ask if war worries them and discuss the world situation further?

The symptoms that a child may exhibit when anxious will vary depending upon the individual child. Each of us has a unique style of reacting to distress. In general, if you see a child begin to behave differently, you might want to keep an eye on him. Some specific symptoms include more irritability, difficulties in concentration, or preoccupation with themes related to power, control, and safety. Some children may regress and manifest behaviors that you have not seen for years — such as regression in toileting habits or tantrums. Even if you sit down and talk with your child, do not be surprised if he minimizes any fears or acts as if he doesn't have any concerns. Often children become anxious and are unaware of why. Don't worry if they can't tell you. Reassure them that they are safe and that anytime they want to talk about things that upset them to come to you. Don't have long discussions about "the war" — they will get little from this. Just invite them to talk if they want to.

We are seeing more gun and swordplay. Should we discourage it? Should we take away these types of toys?

Increased play with weapons is not surprising at a time when the general atmosphere for a child is increasingly alarming. The most dominant images and techniques for "protection" and safety that our children have been exposed to come from the pervasive media images of guns, martial arts, swords, and other weapons that are used to defend and protect. The recent success of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Spiderman, and so many other high profile "hero" stories means that our children will model these images. The choice to discourage or take away play weapons is somewhat personal. In cases where a child cannot regulate his use of these toys, or when he uses them in inappropriate ways, limiting access would be a reasonable choice.

Use of toy guns and swordplay does not need to take place in school. Physical play can be encouraged in the context of gross-motor activities. When this comes up during free play, recess, or less structured time, re-direct the play to be less aggressive.

Some teachers tell us that they see renewed interest in Ninja and other superhero figures. As children play with these figures, they often talk about how they "keep us safe."

Again, this is not surprising. Fantasy play in an atmosphere of unpredictability or fear will have more use of hero? and "heroine" characters. Books, films, toys, and art that depict these will be more compelling to young children. This is not unhealthy in moderation. Children are powerless. It helps them feel safer when they create temporary, but fantasy, worlds where they have control and power. The key is moderation. In school, this may be an opportunity to talk about how real people faced overwhelming situations and prevailed. Bring true heroes and heroines into discussions to illustrate the alternative and productive ways in which courage, persistence, patience, words, and non-violent actions led to "victory." The more we expose our children to problem-solving behaviors other than violence, the more likely they are to see that the best solutions come from forming relationships and alliances, from persuasion and understanding — not intolerance, fear, attacking and conquering.

Teachers tell us that they are seeing more negative and challenging behaviors than usual, even among children who have never behaved this way. As hard as we try sometimes our own anxieties come across one way or another. Children sense this, don't they?

Children are emotional barometers. If the adults in a child's life are anxious, preoccupied, or distressed, the child may perceive this. And, of course, a child's behavior will change when he feels this persistent, low level alarm. The most typical response is to "regress." Indeed, when anyone — adult or child — feels anxious and threatened, he thinks and acts in a less mature fashion. This means the anxious child will be more difficult to teach and parent. Remember that the world our children live in is small — home, school, and neighborhood. We have much more control, and create a safer world for children, than is possible in our larger world. In the long run, it will help children better adapt and be more productive and creative if we keep their small world safe, consistent, predictable, and nurturing. And that sense of safety comes from us.

When a teacher maintains a consistent and supportive environment in the classroom, it allows children to feel safe. If you hear a child talk about war on Iraq or Saddam Hussein, try to get her to tell you what she thinks. You will be surprised. Even very young children are likely to have overheard parents or the media discussing war. Yet they have very little understanding of what this means. It is more likely that they have many inaccurate ideas — which, in turn, may be the source of unrealistic fears. Young children will not understand the distance to Iraq or the kind of threat it poses to their immediate neighborhood. They may mix up recent terrorist alerts with mobilization news and have a variety of distorted ideas. When the opportunity arises, try to give clear and accurate information.

  • Subjects:
    Social Studies, Confronting and Resolving Fears, Wars and Military, Social and Emotional Development
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