How much does your child understand about war? How much should you tell her? Dr. James Garbarino, Co-Director of Family Life Development Center at Cornell University, addresses your concerns.

October 05, 2005

Dr. James Garbarino has spent years studying the effects of war and violence on the youngest members of society. asked him to answer some questions about how children confront such complex subjects, and what parents can do to help them understand.

How do children's ideas about war differ with their ages?

Young children have simpler ideas of the world in general thanolder children, war included. For example, some young children thought that the repeated images of planes crashing into the World Trade Towers on television were separate incidents, not repeats of the same video footage. At any age, some children are more sophisticated than others. In general, preschool children will have simple ideas of war as fighting. Elementary school-age children are more able to understand war as conflict between groups.

Is a child really capable of understanding what war is?

Children understand pain and loss. Often they can find some analogy intheir own experiences to grasp the idea of war. They find it hard to deal with abstractions. Young children may have "naive" views like: "When we argue at school the teacher tells us to talk it over and compromise, not fight. Why can't adults do the same to stop war?"

Should a parent wait for a child to ask questions about war or bring up the subject unprompted?

Whenever possible, parents should try to listen to children before talking to them. Children may have "social maps" of issues that differ from adults. For example, during the Gulf War, many children were strongly affected by the images of birds covered with oil from the oil well fires in Kuwait. Images such as these profoundly disturbed children, whereas adults might not have been as strongly affected.

Letting children outline their perception of the issues and their concerns before responding is always a good strategy. But if children are silent on the issue of war, adults should offer an open-ended opportunity to discuss the matter. For example, asking "What do you think about what has been going on this week?" allows them to take the lead and address the areas that concern them most.

How should a normally "anti-war" parent explain the idea of violence for a justified cause?

Parents who are "anti-war" can focus on issues of "bringing criminals to justice" with children. Discussing the military actions as a political process can educate and enlighten your child as to your beliefs and the country's beliefs. You can explain that there are times when the government does things you don't agree with but you still support the government because of democracy. Parents can also focus on the compassion and helpfulness involved during these times rather than the battles: the relief workers, the food drops to the Afghan people, medical people aiding the injured, blood donators, and the bravery of soldiers, firemen and policemen.

What are common differences boys and girls experience in response to violence and war?

In general and on average, boys and girls do often respond differently to war and violence. Even despite the gender integration of the military, boys are more likely to see themselves as soldiers and that can mean they are excited, anxious or both. Boys are more likely to get caught up in the technology of the process. Girls are more likely, on average, to focus on the issues of suffering and helping. These are average differences that should not obscure the fact that kids of both genders can have all these responses. Parents should be careful not to foist responses onto their kids just because of assumptions about gender. What boys and girls typically do is not a guarantee of what a particular child is feeling and thinking or what type of nurturing or guidance they may need.

What are the possible worries children may be having right now?

Kids can easily have fears linked to their perception of the events ofSeptember 11 and the war participation involving airplanes and flying, tall buildings, sirens, etc. Ordinarily, 80 percent of kids will pass these off after a month has passed -- unless there are new incidents to sustain them. But some kids will have developed "magical" strategies for dealing with fear that parents may eventually want to eliminate -- such as, sleeping with parents, double checking the locks several times a night, being reluctant to go to school or not wanting the parents to go to work.

Are some children likely to be more fearful than others?

Children most likely to show negative effects are fall into three categories:

First, those who feel a connection to the events (through personal loss, a "friend of a friend," or even as just an American since patriotism is being more keenly observed). Adults should not assume they know how their children feel connected, but should ask them.Second, those who were troubled or experiencing troubles before September 11. They are likely to "piggy back" their troubles onto the crisis and have greater difficulty resolving the trauma. This means kids whose parents were divorcing, kids whose grandmother was in the hospital, kids whose dog died, kids who had a fight with their parents. Third, those who are temperamentally very sensitive, anxious, vulnerable, easily afraid. Some of these kids may show physical signs of their distress including stomachaches, headaches, rashes, etc.

What are possible long-term effects on children of the war the U.S. is currently fighting?

The long-term effects depend upon the course of the war. If there are more attacks on Americans at home, it increases the likelihood that kids will need more than the simple "therapy of reassurance" that works so well for single incidents of trauma. When the events continue, kids will need help with the "philosophical" consequences. These can include a foreshortened sense of the future, declining confidence in adults and adult authority, increased aggressive behavior, and even more depression.

Whether or not kids experience these consequences will depend a great deal on how well adults hold up. The first line of defense is adults who remain strong, confident, and competent and not incapacitated due to fear, anxiety, and depression. Children tend to mirror the responses of key adults in their lives. Calm and confident parents and teachers will influence children to believe the world is manageable. It is also a time when families can and should emphasize their spiritual lives as a durable, deep resource.


Dr. James Garbarino, E.L. Vincent Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, has worked with children, youth and families dealing with trauma and violence in communities and war zones for more than 25 years. He is the author of 18 books, including his most recent Parents Under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem in Your Child's Life (NY: The Free Press, 2001).

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