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How to Talk to Kids About War

No kid should live in a bubble, but when it comes to armed conflicts — messy, frightening events that they are — parents should tread carefully.

For anyone high school age or under, America has been at war since they took their first breath. Since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, a conflict that is ongoing, it has been a nation at war. In this time span, American troops (and drones) have fought in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya, Libya, Uganda, and Yemen. To a kid, this is all very far away if they know about it at all. Such conflicts are only fleetingly headline news and barely make their way into pop culture (unless, of course, you count conflicts on galaxies far far away). But kids should know about war. Right? Is it a parent’s duty to tell them about the conflicts their country is engaged in? And if so, how much should we tell them?

It all depends on where a child is in their development. Parents of older children can engage in more complex conversations about the dangers and reasons for war, using their history lessons and entertainment as an entry point. But when it comes to a kid under the age of 7, things require a bit more finesse. 

“The brain is rapidly evolving during growth and development, and it leads to very striking differences how kids understand these kinds of concepts” says Dr.Chris Ivany, a child and adolescent psychiatrist working in the Washington, DC area.

The conversation about what war even is needs to cater to a child’s understanding of the physical world while not resorting to metaphors that are either dangerously reductive – “it’s like when mommy and daddy fight” – or frightfully apocalyptic. It’s a conversation about life and death, politics, morality, and human nature. None of those topics taken alone are easy to convey to a child. Add them together and you’ve got a quagmire that needs to be explained in simple, non-terrifying terms. 

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That’s even tougher when parents seem to freak out about every new news item. The fact is, people have been freaking out about war’s representation in the media for generations. We’re only a few decades removed from Cold War anxieties that caused Boomers to duck and cover at the sound of an air-raid siren, and only about 30 years from the emergence of the current 24-hour news cycle, which came to prominence during the Gulf War. As we enter another period of escalation and deescalation with Iran, it’s on parents to try to calmly explain what’s happening in the world without leaving children shaking in their boots.

“Even more than the words that are spoken back and forth, the tone and way in which discussions like this happen between parents and kids are important,” says Ivany. “Kids pick up on worries and anxieties that parents may have. Parents (should) model the idea that there truly are hard and scary and bad things out in the world, but (also how) we get through them.”

Pop culture can help. Certain touchstones provide context, which is exactly what a child needs to understand the world around them.

“A 4-year-old seeing war presented in a Disney cartoon (like Mulan)… it probably doesn’t overwhelm him or her and then you can have a conversation about it. That same 4-year-old watching the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan is going to be overwhelmed and it’s not going to have the same effect,” says Ivany. “The exposure to the various points in pop culture or discussions in school, as long as it’s developmentally and age-appropriate it’s probably a good thing. Unfortunately, war is a reality and we need to understand it. If it leads to a productive discussion because it’s not an overwhelming topic, it opens the door for future discussions.

“As the brain grows and matures, you can have another discussion that’s more complex than when they were four. And they’ll do that because they feel like engaging you was helpful and not scary: You created a line of communication,” says Ivany.

That line of communication can lead to more productive discussions as a child ages and starts to understand the concept of war on a deeper level, touching on the reasons for war, the concept of morality and “just war”, and the ethical and moral aspects of conflict. 

Still, war, even in abstract, is terrifying. That’s why it’s important to stress with children that they’re fortunate in that war isn’t immediately encroaching on them, ready to wipe them out. 

“Kids tend to internalize and put themselves in the middle of things that logically doesn’t make sense, and that may result in fears that aren’t logical to adults: ‘If it’s on the TV screen, why wouldn’t it be at the door? If a missile can fly from Iran to Iraq, why can’t that missile fly to the suburb where they may live?'” says Ivany. “Especially in kids up to the age of 7, part of this conversation is a reassurance that they are safe, and this is not something that they need to be worried about on a day-to-day basis.”

As for kids with loved ones deployed, Ivany stresses that while conflict has its casualties, it’s essential that they understand,  “the vast majority of soldiers come back just fine. Any time somebody is hurt it’s a tragedy, but most of the time people are safe.” 

Simply having a conversation, to begin with, can be tough. But being open and honest is the key to helping assuage fears and anxieties about war. And, as with all things parenting, those conversations can evolve into larger lessons on life outside the battlefield. 

“You can use conversations about serious things like this to help encourage growth and development in other areas,” says Ivany. “It can lead to a helpful discussion about compassion for other people, or it could become a launching point about speaking out about what’s wrong and to be able to take personal positions on things (like standing up to bullies). These conversations about war oftentimes provide an opportunity for other discussions that are helpful in kids’ development.”