Helping Children Tackle the Tough Questions of War

Kids ask a lot of tough questions, none tougher than those about acts of violence, terrorism and war. As parents continue to grapple with their own fears, anger and sadness about the complex and ongoing world situation, they also must be conduits for information and reassurance for their kids.

Karen Friedland-Brown, parent educator from Parents Place in Palo Alto, says the questions a child asks and the explanations parents provide depend on the individual child, his or her age, temperament and level of development.

Some guidelines apply no matter the age of your child:

  • Monitor your reactions. Maintaining a calm attitude reassures
    children that parents are in control.

  • Before answering questions, find out what the child has seen, read or heard. Some children need to be encouraged to ask questions
    or engage in a dialogue.

  • Tell the truth, using age-appropriate language, but try to deal with only
    what the child is asking without giving too much information. Young children particularly need information in small increments.

  • Control exposure to television news; it can create stress. Viewing should be limited, and you should watch with your children.

  • Maintain routines and predictability in children's lives.

  • Seek other adults for emotional support, rather than burden your children with your fears and concerns.

  • Seek professional help if you have concerns about your child.

    Communicating with Preschool-age Children

    Young children worry about separation from you and whether you will continue to take care of them. They also may worry about otherchildren who could be affected by war.
    Preschoolers ask very basic questions that can be hard to answer. They need responses that are short, simple and factual.

  • If your preschooler asks, "What is war?" you might explain that a war is when
    countries fight against each other.

  • If they ask, "Why do they fight?" you can explain that our president and other leaders decide that war is necessary for a country to be safe.

  • War play is normal, and it may increase in response to current events as children actively process information by acting out, imitating or problem-solving different scenarios.

    School-age Children Ask Specifics
    By age 6 or 7, children may have specific questions about the facts of war:

  • Where will it happen? How long will the war last? Who is fighting? Some questions will be impossible for you to answer, but children can tolerate uncertainty if you are honest and they trust you to share what you do know.

  • School-age children have vivid imaginations, and talk of war can create strong fears. Reassure your children that the war is being fought far away and that they are safe.

  • If asked about terrorism in the U.S., you may want to add that some people like to do harm and that the government is doing everything it can to protect people.
    Children may be confused about adult views on the war. If fighting is bad, why is war sometimes good or necessary?

    Your responses to these questions vary depending on your views and opinions. Use this opportunity to emphasize that fighting is always bad, but that sometimes grown-ups fight and even kill people to keep the world safe. It is sad when someone dies, even if the person is an enemy.

    Reassure your children by reviewing safety measures: Make sure they know
    family phone numbers, let you know where they are and know numbers to call in case of emergency.

    Adolescents Challenge Assumptions

    Teens may question and challenge explanations and
    assumptions that were offered when they were younger. Create a zone of safety within the family where ideas can be discussed without judgment. Older teens face the prospect of being directly involved in a war, even of being injured or killed.

  • Actively listen to their fears and feelings, and accept them as valid.

  • Encourage and support teens' connections with school, religious or community organizations that provide safe structures for them to grapple with tough issues and to make personalcontributions.

    Getting Involved

    You can help your children deal with feelings of powerlessness and isolation by encouraging them to take action.  For ways to get involved, check out How Families Can Support U.S. Troops, our guide to programs which support our troops and volunteers in hotspots around the globe.  

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