How to help children and adolescents cope with war

||Last Updated: 09/04/2003

The military conflict in Iraq will create some degree of anxiety and distress, similar to what happened after the Sept. 11 attacks, among many children and adolescents.

Children may be especially fearful that the result of war may be more personal loss and terrorism at home. With this in mind, FGI, a Toronto-based EAP consulting firm, has prepared advice on how to help children and adolescents.

How children react

Fear and anxiety.

These are the primary reactions children will likely experience. They will be worried about their own safety and the safety of their family. While these emotions may be exaggerated, they are nevertheless real and based on their own internalized perceptions of terrorism and war. Extensive media coverage and security alerts will contribute to an increased anxiety.


Children may be confused about the difference between war and terrorism. Some children, especially those that are younger, may have difficulty differentiating between violence as seen on television compared to real events. Separating reality from imagined fantasy needs to be addressed by parents.

Loss of control.

Children may find it difficult to understand why adults don’t have control over world events. These feelings have been intensified by media coverage of terrorism and the remaining images associated with the Sept. 11 attacks. Children may compensation for feelings of powerlessness and loss of control by being more assertive in their demands, exhibiting lack of co-operation with others and other oppositional behaviour.

Loss of stability and security

. Children and adolescents’ vulnerability to these feelings may be more pronounced if they have experienced a family breakup or recent loss or physical separation from a close family member or friend.

What parents and guardians can do

•Do not dismiss or minimize children’s questions and feelings. Reinforce that such feelings are a normal reaction to the abnormal situation of war.

•Help children separate real, factual information from imagined fears.

•Help children differentiate between war and terrorism. Explain that the war is happening overseas.

•Children need to know that they are safe. Concerning terrorism, reassure children that you are there to protect them and the government is doing everything possible to ensure the safety of all Canadians.

•Keep hope alive. Encourage children to talk about positive events in the past and think of what things they can do to make the world a better and safer place in the future.

•Help children express their thoughts and feelings about current events in concrete ways, such as conversations, drawings and journal writing.

•Speak truthfully to children. In response to their questions, give them clear and age-appropriate information about the current world situation. Use simple language and less detail with children.

•For younger children, try to limit exposure to media discussions of current events and monitor their use of the Internet.

•If you are unsure of an answer or how to respond, be honest. Simply say, “I don’t know” or “I feel that way too.”

•Explain, in children’s language, the rise of ethnic tensions and teach acceptance and respectfulness of other cultures.

•Try to maintain normal family routines and consistency.

•Do not convey your worst fears to children.

Source: FGI

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