Campus & Community

What to tell children about war:

6 min read

Tell the truth, keep it simple

Professor of Education Kathleen McCartney: ‘Four-year-olds are just starting to understand about death. They may even become preoccupied with it for a short while. The biggest concern is that something might happen to their parents, the worst thing a 4-year-old can imagine.’ (Staff photo by Jon Chase)

War talk and pictures are everywhere and adults are wondering what to tell their children about it.

Experts say that any war talk should be guided by a child’s age. At age 9 or 10, kids are old enough to worry the way their parents worry.

“That’s when they can generate all the possibilities in their minds – anthrax attacks, bombings, planes crashing into buildings,” notes Jerome Kagan, Starch Research Professor of Psychology at Harvard.

Before age 5 or 6, kids don’t understand concepts like nations and war, says Kathleen McCartney, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“Four-year-olds are just starting to understand about death,” she continues. “They may even become preoccupied with it for a short while. The biggest concern is that something might happen to their parents, the worst thing a 4-year-old can imagine.”

Kurt Fischer, Bigelow Professor of Education at Harvard, tells the story of a friend’s 4-year-old daughter whose dog died. The child came to realize that the same thing would someday happen to her mother, father, and herself. “She threw a tremendous tantrum,” Fischer notes. “That kind of thing doesn’t usually happen unless the child focuses on death, a situation that can come into play with the death of an older family member or a pet. It is something to be extra-sensitive about in the case where a parent, sibling, or close relative is called to the war.”

Signs of anxiety

Although the age at which children become fearful or anxious about war varies, Kagan cites four sure signs of the phenomenon. They include sleep disturbances – a child has nightmares, difficulty falling asleep, or wakes up earlier than usual; loss of appetite; spontaneous sobbing or crying; and what Kagan calls “clinginess.”

“A child may not want to leave the side of mom or dad,” he notes.

Even if parents don’t see such indicators, Fischer and McCartney think it’s a good idea to ask them how they feel about the war. Once a child is 6 or 7 and in school, he or she is able to understand at least some of what is going on.

McCartney remembers when she decided not to tell her 4-year-old daughter about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, which killed seven astronauts including school teacher Christa McAuliffe, on Jan. 28, 1986. But her daughter’s teacher and other kids at preschool talked about the tragedy. “She was very upset,” McCartney recalls. “She knew if someone else’s mother could die, then I could, too. At such times, it’s important for children to be able to share their feelings with a parent. Particularly if someone close is in the war.”

“It’s crucial for kids to have a way to help them understand what’s going on, to have a way to get their questions answered, and to talk about it,” adds Fischer.

Of course, some kids will blow off their parents when asked about their feelings. “But it’s very important to listen to those who want to talk, and to let those who don’t, know you are available,” McCartney points out. “Listening is as important as talking.”

Parents have to be careful what they say, however.

“It’s not helpful to talk about terrorist attacks, civilians getting killed, or people dying on the battlefield when you’re having dinner together,” Kagan cautions. “That generates anxiety.”

Parents should also monitor themselves for signs of anxiety. Kids know when their parents are disturbed, and that feeling can disturb them in turn.

“Pictures on television can be distressing,” Fischer says. “If they disturb you, they probably will disturb your children. In that case, you should consider limiting the amount of time they watch war on TV.”

All children (and parents) are not equally vulnerable. Some are temperamentally tough; others are temperamentally fragile. “Parents can tell the difference, and they should act accordingly,” Kagan advises. “Of course, some kids fall in-between. That’s when to look closely for changes in behavior like sleep and appetite patterns, crying and clinging.”

“It’s important to let an anxious or scared child know that you understand their feelings, and that you will do everything you can to keep them and the rest of the family safe,” McCartney adds.

Keep it simple

In answering questions that children have about the war, the experts advise: Tell the truth and keep it simple. “If kids fear death, they will ask about it,” Kagan believes. They want to be reassured that parents and the soldiers are doing all that’s possible to protect them.

“When they ask questions, answer them the same way you would other questions such as why is the sky blue, or why are some people mean,” Kagan says. Explain that people in a place called Iraq are being treated horribly by the people who run that country. The United States is going to war to help them. Unfortunately, some people will get hurt, or even die.

“It’s not too different from when a child asks about sex,” McCartney says. “You try to tell them what they want to know without going into the whole biological story. Answer their questions, then see how they react. If they’re still puzzled, give them more information.”

Can children tell the difference between the violence of a real war and pretend wars fought by actors like Bruce Willis? Not those younger than 5 years, McCartney says. By 6 or 7, they start to see the difference. By 8-9, they know the difference.

“Just because it’s fiction, however, doesn’t mean it’s without emotional impact,” Fischer points out. “My 8-year-old twins are scared by ‘Lord of the Rings’ videos. They leave the room or complain that the movie gives them nightmares. Image how much more scary it can be if they think a bomb will fall on our house.”

Parents should treat their children as real people with real feelings. “Pay attention to them and be sensitive to their feelings,” Fischer says. “Don’t think the war doesn’t affect them, but try to protect them from the extreme experiences of it. Talk to them to find out where they are with it, then let them know you will keep them safe and help them cope.”