There’s been a major change in this country: the United States is now at war. Parents have no power to keep this knowledge from their children, nor should they try. From the media, from overhearing parents talk, from conversations with their friends, children of all ages simply know war has begun.

Depending on a child’s age, concerns may vary. An eight-year-old child may wonder if “war over there” can happen “over here.” An eighteen year old, completing high school this Spring, may worry about what kind of world he or she is graduating into. All children are in some way, and to some degree, affected.

The question for parents is how to psychologically secure their children while this country is proceeding through a dangerous time. The answer is, treat this crisis as you would any significant change, and make sure you anchor your children to family in several important ways.

Begin by understanding that there are three factors that can make any major life change immeasurably worse – ignorance, isolation, and helplessness.

Change is that process that takes people from an old to new, from the same to a different, life circumstance. A family move, a death in the family, a parental divorce, a parental remarriage, are all very common changes that can none-the-less be traumatic for children.

If the child is given no information about change that is going on, the boy or girl is at risk of coping with ignorance by imagining his or her worst fears. “I don’t know what is going on or going to happen, but it will probably be very bad.” If the child is given no companionship through change, the boy or girl is at risk of coping with isolation by going it alone. “There’s no one to support me, I have to deal with this on my own.” If the child is given no choices for effective action, the boy or girl is at risk of coping with helplessness by giving up. “There is nothing I can do.”

So, to help secure your child through this time of change, which is a time of war, do the following.

1)Reduce ignorance by making sure you give your child information he or she can count on. What you have to say will depend partly on the child. Respect differences in each child’s need to know, differences even apparent among children in the same family. At the extremes, some children may want to be continually informed and have their constant questions answered to reduce their recurrent worries. Other children, however, may prefer to be oblivious to what is going on, to be given as little information as possible because they don’t want to feel troubled by thinking about upsetting events. Treat both responses to the war as okay.

This information that you give is of two kinds. First, there is a need for information in response to what the child doesn’t know. “Will Mom or Dad be sent to war?” Second, there is a need for information in response to what the child knows that isn’t so. “My friend told me that we are going to be bombed tomorrow.” Answer the first question with whatever is true and dispel the second if you believe it false.

Finally, if you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest. “How long is the war going to last?” Say: “I don’t know.” And then share with your child how it feels to live in this unavoidable ignorance and uncertainty. “It feels scary not to know.” By declaring your own fear, you give your child permission to talk about his or her fear. Fear is nothing to be ashamed of. Even grown-ups can feel afraid.

2) Reduce isolation by providing your child with family company. Be accessible, in person or by phone, when your child feels in need of your support. Be willing to listen to any concerns or questions about the war your child may voice, treating all of them (even the most unrealistic) seriously. There are no stupid concerns. There are no silly questions. And no matter how inconvenient, you will take the time now to respond to either one. You will not put the child off until later.

If your child is reluctant to express concerns, instead of you asking questions (that are invasive of privacy and may be refused) invite information out with interest instead. “I’d really be interested in hearing your thoughts about the war, if you cared to say.” Or, model the kind of sharing you would like by first sharing how you think and feel about the war. Your example can encourage a reluctant child to speak.

Remember, how well a family copes with a crisis depends on how, through caring companionship and open communication, they remain closely connected during the challenge and disruption. Because change and crisis create increased demands, the temptation is for family members to become too busy to “take time” with each other. This is a poor choice of priorities because now they become disconnected from each other. Take enough time with each other so no one feels isolated in the family.

3) Reduce helplessness by providing your child with effective choices for coping with what is going on. One way to combat fear in this threatening situation is for the child to have choices of two kinds. First, there is a need for choices for taking care of himself or herself. As suggested above, the boy or girl needs to have the power to ask questions and get answers, and to be able get adequate companionship and support when desired. In the first case, the child is empowered by knowing “I don’t have to be ignorant,” and in the second “I don’t have to be alone.”

Second, there is a need for choices to influence the threatening situation. Since people are divided about the war, some supporting it and others opposing it, the child could take actions that communicate either support or opposition, in that process feeling empowered because “There is something I can do.” Symbolic gestures – like letter writing, like parading --are actions that give the child expressive outlets that feel like they may affect the situation.

Finally, there are protective actions parents can take to help the child feel more secure, chiefly those that create communication access to parents, that provide family stability and predictability during a time of uncertainty, and that specify emergency plans to be followed in case significant social disruption occurs.

Parents have to be cautious, however, that security measures they provide do not backfire. They don’t want to act like the fictional parents who, to help their child feel safe after a neighborhood break-in, installed burglar bars on the windows, put in an alarm system, got a guard dog for the yard, and bought a gun to ward off possible intruders. Extreme security measures can end up terrifying the child who now sees ample cause to believe in the immanence of threat. Instead of feeling safer, the child now feels more afraid.

Probably the best security you can buy is adequate electronic communication that allows your child to get in touch with you immediately should need arise.

To feel secure in the family during a time of war, your child needs information to count on, caring people to be with, and effective actions to take

© Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
For permission to use this article, contact the author.