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How To Be A Good Parent In A War Zone

Studies of kids in Israel and Gaza suggest the key to good parenting under fire is acting just as you would outside of a war zone.

Parents raising children in war zones should embrace an “authoritative” parenting style, defined as a moderate approach that involves treating children like adults while also offering emotional support, a new study suggests. Researchers found that adolescents living in southern Israel under constant rocket fire suffer less distress when their parents are nurturing, but also hold their kids to higher standards—as opposed to being excessively permissive or authoritarian.   

This study was conducted in Israel among children and their parents who had been exposed to a protracted period of war, terrorism and missile attacks,” said study coauthors Michelle Slone of Tel Aviv University and Anat Shoshani of the Hertzliya Interdisciplinary Center. “The motivation for this study was to trace the most beneficial aspects of parenting that could facilitate and promote children’s adjustment and positive development in a dangerous and unstable reality.”

Psychologists recognize three major parenting styles. “Permissive” parents impose few rules and standards on their children, allowing them to self-regulate. “Authoritarian” parents impose many rules, and demand obedience. Neither style is associated with great outcomes for kids under normal circumstances—although parents could be forgiven for thinking that, in a war zone, the rules for raising well-adjusted children are different. The third style, “authoritative,” is generally associated with the best outcomes for children, and involves setting high standards for kids while also guiding them compassionately toward growing into independent, rational adults.

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But, in a war zone, things are different. Parents may think that authoritarian rule is the only way to protect their children. Indeed, rules such as “run for the bomb shelter when the siren goes off” need to be followed with utter obedience. On the other hand, parents may think that, in a world gone mad, a permissive style is best—that home should be a refuge from the iron fist, precisely because there are so many iron fists punching holes in the streets.

And yet, prior studies have also suggested that normalcy is key in a war zone—and that kids turn out best when parents do what they’d normally do. A 2009 study of 412 Palestinian children living under fire in the Gaza Strip found that those who managed their stress most efficiently came from the least disrupted homes. Similarly, a meta-analysis of post-traumatic stress in children found that the parenting styles that work best normally, work even better in a foxhole.

For this new study, Slone and Shoshani surveyed 277 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 14 to gauge the sort of parenting style they experienced at home. Then, they surveyed each child’s parents, to find out what level of emotional distress or trauma the kids were experiencing. They confirmed that children with more exposure to traumatic events have more mental health symptoms, and also found that mothers who conformed to the “authoritative” style were most likely to have well-adjusted kids. They found no correlation between a father’s parenting style and a child’s distress, an anomaly the authors chalk up to a relatively small sample of fathers.

They also found that maternal warmth was key. “The parenting style of mothers was the main factor determining children’s response to the trauma of war and terrorism,” Slone and Shoshani said. “The authoritative parenting style…and high maternal warmth were the two central ingredients producing low levels of mental health problems among the exposed children.”

For those of us living outside war zones, the findings still have strong implications. Study after study has demonstrated that both excessively strict parenting and excessively lax parenting do not have the desired effects, and that the best possible parenting style remains a moderate approach, built on mutual respect, negotiation, and affection. If families living in Southern Israel and Gaza aren’t the exceptions to that rule—our families, no matter who stressful, aren’t either. “This could be a challenge for stressed and traumatized parents,” Slone and Shoshani said.

But we owe it to our children to rise to the occasion.