Though there is no "one size fits all" solution, Dr. Maria Trozzi, author and pediatrician, says there are four points people should know before talking to the kids.
Dr. Trozzi is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston University's School of Medicine, and author of "Talking with Children About Loss."
The following are her suggestions:
- Children are going to look to their parents to see how the parents are sorting this all out. That's incredibly important to remember.
- How you talk to them depends on their age and developmental stage. Additionally, it's important to think about where your kids are getting their information from. The 4 year-old will probably get it all from you, but the 9 year-old may be getting it from school as well.
- The media has a huge influence. Consider modifying how much television you're watching so that you don't oversaturate your children with graphic images. As was the case in 1991, you turn on the TV and actually see the bombs going off, which makes it so much more real to children. So you need to determine how much media exposure is appropriate and how to monitor that, and you must watch and listen to your children in order to know.
- We know now that war can happen on U.S. soil. Back in 1991, we could tell our children that despite what we saw on TV and how scary and real it looked, there had been no time in history when there had been an attack in the U.S. throughout any of the wars we fought in. But it's different this time. We can't say that to our children any more.
How to talk to kids
- Kids under the age of 3 - With children this young, there is no room for any discussion at all and you want to protect these kids from the media. There really isn't any way to talk to them about it, but they will hear things, though, so it's also important that you don't talk about the war on the phone in front of them, or debate the issues with your spouse in the living room where the child can hear you. Young children can really absorb a lot, even if they aren't quite sure what it is they're listening to.
- Children, aged 5-8 or in the early elementary school grades, are the ones who wonder about what will happen. They ask things like:
"Is daddy too old to be in the war?"
"If this happened in New York, could it happen in Iowa?"
"Could the bad people come here?"
You need to think about the serious adult conversations you have in the house. You have to keep your mouth shut as a parent, but be open and willing to let the kids lead you in a discussion. If you tell them not to worry about it, a 4-year-old would believe you, but a 7-year-old wouldn't.
- Children aged 9-12 can really engage in abstract reasoning, and they may be more curious and ask "hard" questions. They may, in fact, want to know why the other countries aren't going along with us in the war? Why are we doing this all by ourselves? Aren't we going to kill kids in schools? How come we're doing this?
As the parent, you should answer these questions by saying the majority of people here in the United States think the terrorism needs to stop, and that they (Iraq) have weapons that could hurt us. You can tell the 10 year-old that some adults have trouble understanding it, too, but that as Americans we need to support our troops overseas because that's what it means to be an American.
- Adolescents love to engage in the extremes in everything. To them, President Bush is either all good or all bad. At this age, it's important to allow a forum of ideas in your household. This kind of challenges them because they have no control over the situation and they understand that with the war comes the possibility of more terrorism.
Generally, Dr. Trozzi says, the worries and concerns that kids have may be harder for them to grasp.
"Children get nervous because we are now on an "orange alert" and they might wonder, 'Should we go to the hockey game?' So that's where parents have to intervene and say something like, 'It's my job to keep you safe and we wouldn't go to the game if I thought you were in danger.'"
Dr. Trozzi advises children to go to their parents, if they are nervous about the war. And says parents should let children get their feeling out, and then help them find something they enjoy that relaxes them and helps them not to be scared.
However, she says it is important to remember not to give yourself or your children a false sense of security, so make sure you are informed.
"Do we worry about bio-warfare? Of course." she says. "But there is also a very good chance that we will all still be around this time next year, so you can give your kids that perspective. It's very likely that this will end without too much hardship here," she says.
As far as what you should not say to children, Dr. Trozzi says don't make promises of things you can't control and emphasizes the importance of limiting TV watching of the war. Lastly, she recommends routine and structure. Both can help children get through difficult periods like this. Play games with them, have more family time, engage in comfort food. Find ways to gather around each other because that's what people need when they're nervous, she says.