Helping Kids Cope With War Stress

With no quick end in sight, the war in Iraq is likely to dominate the TV shows your children see and the conversations they hear for weeks to come.

Although your child may not talk about it, there's a good chance that all this war talk is causing some fear, anxiety or stress.

Child psychologist Robin Goodman, from the New York University Child Study Center, explained on The Early Show what parents should do to alleviate those concerns and fears.

The most important thing to remember, she says, is that parents consistently underestimate symptoms of stress in children. While their children might be struggling with the images or ideas of war, they often can't articulate their worries. Instead, this anxiety is reflected in changes in behavior or physical pains — signs of anxiety that parents fail to recognize.

Although Goodman says she does not want to panic parents, she does worry that parents often take the attitude of "that's not happening to my kids."

Parents may have one or two conversations about war with their children and feel as though they've calmed all concerns. Unfortunately, that's not going to cut it. Three days from now, your child might have a classmate whose parent is deployed, and the experience will stir up fears all over again.

Goodman says children are resilient and the "scary novelty" of war will eventually wear off. However, she warns, it's essential not to underestimate how the conflict in Iraq is affecting children.

She suggests handling the subject of war in the following ways:

  • Age: The younger a child, the more he or she will be affected. Younger kids can't express their feelings, so parents should observe sleep problems or irritability as symptoms of stress.
  • Direct Involvement: Goodman says a child with a relative in the military will most likely be emotionally affected by the current events.
  • Recent Trauma: Parents should observe a child who has been in an accident, had any kind of experience with death (a grandmother or a friend's parent for example), was particularly upset about Sept. 11 or been exposed to other traumas.
  • Mental or Learning Problems: The children with these challenges are already having trouble coping. Goodman says war may be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
  • Stressed Parents: Children of all ages take cues from Mom and Dad. If you're concerned about the war, you can easily pass those fears along to your child.

All children will experience varying levels of anxiety. Chances are, they won't tell Mom and Dad they are anxious, but these feelings will manifest themselves in behaviors. The longer the war lasts, the more symptoms that may appear. For most of these red flags, Goodman says, parents need to pay attention to "frequency and duration." Is this behavior occurring every day or just a couple of times a week? Did the behavior/emotion last for one week or five? Here are things parents can look for:

  • Sleep, Appetite Changes
  • Regression
  • Avoiding activities that they might see as "scary," such as traveling on an airplane or leaving Mom for school.
  • Trouble at School
  • Head, Stomach Pain

So if your child is exhibiting any of the above symptoms, what can you do? Goodman suggests the following:

  • Maintain a Routine: Having a constant structure to the day makes kids feel safe and secure.
  • Model Good Coping Skills: Again, kids take their cues from you.
  • Help Children Help Themselves: Give them the power to solve this problem.
  • Communicate with other adults: Goodman suggest parents communicate with their child's coaches, teachers, youth group leaders, and whoever else is an adult participant. Parents should discover if their child is struggling in other areas. If you know your child is having a hard time, be sure to share that with other adults.

Goodman emphasizes that talking to kids about war is not going to make them more scared and it won't make a stressed kid worse. Try using the war as a learning opportunity. Use the war to have discussions about people from other countries and other religions.

During times like this, children, particularly those in junior high, may become angry or adopt a bias. Goodman says to make sure that that you as a parent do not say negative things about any of the major players in the war, be it the President or Saddam Hussein.