Explaining War to Kids

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While the United States presses its Operation Iraqi Freedom campaign, parents at home must grapple with how to explain what's going on to their children.

"Parents, teachers and other adults once again face the challenge of talking and listening to children about the difficult topics of violence, revenge, safety, danger, injury and death," said James Garbarino, professor of human development and co-director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University.

Garbarino said previous disasters like school shootings and terrorist acts have helped child experts and parents understand how to deal with kids' war stress.

"We can draw from these experiences to offer a series of principles for adults to use in their efforts to respond to children as the images of war flood their consciousness through the media, schoolyard and family discussions," he said.

While there are standards for talking to kids about traumatic situations, experts say parents should tailor their war-related discussions to a child's age, personality, tendency to worry and level of interest.

According to New York University's Child Study Center, parents should look for opportunities to have "the war talk" as they arise, not bombard kids with too much information or avoid it all together.

"It's important that kids know they can talk about it," Dr. Judith Myers-Walls, a professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., told WebMD.

But kids learn the most from observing how their parents react. The NYU center stresses that maintaining a calm attitude conveys that parents are in control and making sure their children are safe.

PBS Parents suggests using art to help children get a grasp of what's going on overseas. Simple materials such as crayons, markers, play dough and blocks can be given to kids to play with, since watching them play often reveals what they are thinking.

"I think in general it's very important to provide access to a range of open-ended materials at all times," said Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., on PBS Parents. "It's a good idea also to look for small objects or plastic figures related to an event so kids can act out some of the things they might need to express."

And parents shouldn't be alarmed if their children start to play-act war.

"There is a natural tendency to copy or work out what scares you, so a lot of kids will be playing out pretend war scenes because war is scary, " said Dr. Stanley Greenspan. "This shouldn't be viewed as a bad thing. It's a way kids are coping."

Mental health experts said children may show signs of stress, including sadness, excessive clinging and fear of darkness, but that parents don't have to "fix" how their kids feel.

Some adults may feel compelled to "sweep away all the bad stuff," Myers-Walls said. "That's being unfair to the child. That can lead to some unhealthy coping patterns. We need to help children accept that we all feel sad and angry at times. When they feel afraid, say, 'Yeah it's scary. Don't tell them they don't need to be afraid. Instead, look at things that make them feel safe."

The National Center for Children Exposed to Violence at the Yale Child Study Center suggests parents monitor how much television war coverage their children are exposed to, and watch the coverage together.

There are also various Web sites that provide kid-friendly stories about current events. These include Channelonenews.comBBC Newsround and Pencilnews.com. Some include interactive games or activities that help kids better understand the war in Iraq and other world events.