What do children understand about war? More than you may think. Experts in child psychology say that American children who absorbed news of the attacks of September 11 are likely to have more a greater fixation on war than their peers of previous generations.
"It's not as foreign a concept as it might have been in years past," says Mary Polce-Lynch, assistant professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. "Because of the terrorist attacks, war is not going to be as abstract to most of our children. We have experienced a massive killing recently and many of them know what that means."
This makes it all the more important that parents and caregivers prepare for how children will react to war and its many effects. How you behave and how you address your children on the topic of war should vary, based on the age and temperament of your child or children. Infants and toddlers obviously require different approaches than school-aged kids and teens. But in all cases, it pays to be aware of developmental differences. Here's advice on what to say and when to say it.
Even though your baby can't discuss war doesn't mean she's completely immune from the emotional fallout. "Infants get their feelings from the way their parents treat them. If they hear worried tones or arguing, that has an effect," says Dr. Alice Sterling Honig, professor emeritus of child development at Syracuse University. Body language is especially telling at this stage, she explains. "This is a primary way an infant knows if mommy or daddy is worried -- and they will react to that."
Because infants are sensitive to touch, you may want to monitor your behavior. Are you watching the news while feeding baby? Holding or playing with her while you discuss current events with another adult in the home? Keep in mind that during these times, while you might not be addressing your baby directly, she's aware of your reactions to the conversation. Try to ensure that bonding activities like feeding and playing aren't clouded by your own anxiety or concerns about war.
In addition, be aware of the amount of time you spend watching TV with your baby in the room. While infants certainly can't understand the content of a newscast, the sights and sounds will still have an effect. "We know from research that even infants will orient to the picture on the TV and that it can have an emotional impact even if the child can't make sense of it," says Honig.
At this age, your child may be developing the verbal skills to converse, but that doesn't mean you should talk a lot about war with your child. In fact, some experts recommend you discuss the topic of war sparingly, if at all.
"Children have a huge right not to know something at an age when they can do little about it," says Dr. Polce-Lynch. "In many cases it is inappropriate for a young child to know about people being bombed or killed. Often all that the discussion will do is make children feel unsafe."
If your young child raises the topic of war with you, make an effort to respond succinctly and specifically to the question, rather than launch into a lengthy discussion of war. Often parents will give more information than a child wants or needs, says Dr. Polce-Lynch. "If your child looks at the television and says 'What's that?' your response might be something like: 'That's a news story about a war in another country.' You are not required to offer up more detail than the child has asked for."
In fact, remember that a lot of detail may overwhelm a child. It's akin to the "Where do babies come from?" question. Parents may feel compelled to offer the long version of the sex education conversation when all that was required was a short, one-sentence response.
Other tips for parents and caregivers: