The Five Best and Worst Things You Can Say to Your Children about War and Terrorism
War and terrorism dominate most newscasts. Tips on what and what not to say to help your children cope with these stressful topics.
The Five Best
1. “What have you been hearing about the war?”
Ask your children questions. Begin a dialogue by showing an interest in their thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Ask them what they’ve heard at school. Ask what their friends think. Ask what they’ve heard on the news. Ask if they have questions.
Then listen to their answers. Ask clarifying questions: “Why do you think that?” “How do you think that happened?” “What do you think will happen next?” Show an interest in your children’s opinion and it won’t be long before you hear, “What do you think, Dad?”
2. “You can only watch TV for thirty minutes, and I want to be present.”
Viewers and parents beware. War on TV can be graphic. Seeing real human beings killed with the precision and repetition of a video game can have a numbing effect on children. But war is not a game. Neither is it a sixty-minute drama interlaced with commercials. The war-related TV that children watch needs to be regulated and supervised. Turn the TV off after the news coverage and debrief. Dialogue about what they just saw and heard. Help your children make meaning of this serious material.
3. “What do you suppose it looks like from the other side?”
This question is Parent Talk that helps children learn to see things from both sides of an issue and to develop empathy. Learning to shift perspective and see things from the other side prevents your child from developing tunnel vision. It increases his understanding of the opposing view, which is an important step in effective problem solving and conflict resolution.
When children learn that it’s possible to see the same thing from different angles, they’re better equipped to deal with the increasing diversity and difference of opinion that exist in today’s world. Understanding the belief system and the perspective of another helps us anticipate reactions and predict responses on both an international and a personal level.
4. “I don’t know what will happen, but I know we’ll be able to handle it.”
When children get scared, adults often make what they think are reassuring promises. They say, “Everything will be okay” or “Nothing will happen to us. I can tell you that.” These promises are not truthful. We do not know everything will be okay. We do not know for sure that nothing will happen to us. Tell your children the truth. “I don’t know what will happen, but I know we can handle it.” This is Parent Talk that communicates confidence. It says, in essence, “I’m confident we can handle whatever comes our way. If we have to ration, we can handle it. If the price of gas doubles or triples, we can handle it. If the economy nosedives, we can handle it.”
5. “I understand how you could feel that way.”
There are varied and strong emotions in America about war. We have hawks and doves, peace marchers and war advocates. There is debate and disagreement in the Congress. Marriage partners are often split on this issue. It is highly possible that one of your children holds beliefs about war that differ from yours. When these differences are expressed, effective Parent Talk includes, “I understand how you could feel that way.”
“I understand how you could feel that way” doesn‘t say that you agree with your child. It doesn’t say you share her beliefs or her feelings. It demonstrates and communicates an understanding of how she could arrive at that conclusion. It respects differences and honors diversity.
The Five Worst
1. “God is on our side.”
God doesn’t take sides. God loves everyone unconditionally. To tell children that God loves us more that He loves others is untrue. “God is on our side” is a phrase that results in children’s developing false beliefs that only good things can happen to us because God plays on our team. When you say this to your children you equip them with a false sense of superiority. Feelings of superiority lead to a belief in “better than.” “Better than” breeds an “us vs. them” mentality that encourages conflict, dissention, and strife.
2. “We’re right and they’re wrong.”
Everyone has a different view of the world, so no one thinks that what he or she does is “wrong.” Human beings do horrible things, but they don’t see them that way. They believe they are right. Their side is doing what they do because they think they are right. Our side is doing what we do because we think we are right.
Being right doesn’t work. Making people wrong doesn’t work. Speak to your children about differences. Let them know what is similar and what is different about beliefs, values, morals, and cultures. But do it outside of the context of right and wrong.
3. “There’s nothing you can do.”
When you say these words to your child, you communicate to her, “You are small, insignificant, and have no power.” You teach her that she is at the mercy of her environment and that she has no influence over the events of her life. You’re teaching her to play her life from the victim position. Ask instead, “What do you think we can do about this?” Help her brainstorm possible actions she can take. Could she donate part of her allowance to the Red Cross? Could she write a letter to someone serving in the military? How about making a poster, saying a prayer, putting a bow on a tree, or designing a T-shirt?
Tell your child, “You always have more choices than you think you have,” and help her develop an “I can” stance toward life. One of the best ways to come to believe “I can do something” is to go out and do something.
4. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Would you say to your child, “You’re really stupid”? Or “You’re so young and inexperienced you couldn’t possibly know anything. You need to live as long as I have and then you’ll be worthy of having an opinion”? Probably not. But when you say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” you send him a similar message.
Of course we have more years of experience than our children. It’s true that we’ve seen and heard things they don’t yet begin to grasp. But that doesn’t mean we can’t respect the opinion of our eight-year-old or our thirteen-year-old. Listen to your child. Demonstrate your understanding of her views by reflecting them back to her with a paraphrase. Model for her a mature adult who can respect differences and contrary opinions.
5. “There is nothing to worry about.”
Children worry. They get scared. They have strong feelings about war, terrorism, and death. To tell them they have nothing to worry about is to ask them to numb their feelings, push them down, and pretend they don’t exist. In emotional times, children need support. They need adults in their lives who help them work through their feelings in safe ways.