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Talking with Children About War and Violence in the World

by Sheldon Berman, Sam Diener, Larry Dieringer, and Linda Lantieri


Educators for Social Responsibility has prepared this guide for adults who are concerned about how to communicate with young people about difficult issues in the world.

1. How much media coverage of tragedies or warfare is healthy for kids to watch?
It depends on the age and maturity of the children. Parents may decide that some shows and topics are inappropriate. However, if children are going to watch programs about the war, we recommend that a parent or caregiver watch with them. Afterwards, talking together about reactions to the coverage and feelings about the event in general can help children make sense of what they are hearing and seeing. There is ample research which says that viewing television coverage of violent or tragic events is correlated with increased chances of post-traumatic symptomology later, so it is important to limit the amount of television coverage children watch, regardless of age. It is especially important to limit young children's exposure to graphic images of violence.

2. How can I judge if a child is ready to talk about difficult events?
Most children from age four to five and above would appreciate talking with adults they trust. In the media there is daily discussion of difficult topics, and it is likely that children know about them. However, it is also quite likely that they have some confusion about the facts and the magnitude of the danger they personally face. Younger children often combine facts and connect them to their own experiences in surprising ways that can increase their sense of fear, believing for example, "Planes have bombs on TV, so the planes over my house have bombs too." They often have mistaken information, questions, and some strong feelings. Often children are hesitant to share their questions and fears with adults. For this reason, we recommend that adults create space for children to share their concerns.

3. How do I open up the subject with children?
The key word here is listen. Most experts agree that it is best not to open up a conversation with children by giving them a lecture--even an informal, introductory lecture--on the particular tragedy that is on the news. Don't burden children with information for which they may not be ready. The best approach is to listen carefully to children's spontaneous questions and comments, and then respond to them in an appropriate, supportive way. Let children's concerns, in their own words, guide the direction and depth of the discussion. If they don't bring the subject up, you can invite conversation by asking a question. You might ask younger children, for example, "Have you heard anything about a country called Iraq?"

4. Won't it just scare children more if we talk about it?
No, not if you listen to children and respond in a supportive, sensitive way to what you hear. No matter how frightening some feelings are, it is far more frightening to think that no one is willing to talk about them. If we communicate by our silence that this--or any other subject--is too scary or upsetting to talk about, then the children, who depend on us, may experience the added fear that we are not able to take care of them. Young children especially need to feel secure in the knowledge that the adults in their lives can manage difficult topics and deep feelings and are available to help them do the same.

5. What if children never bring up the subject? Should I just wait or is there something I can do?
Some children may not bring things up because they are genuinely not concerned; others may never bring up the subject even if it's on their minds; some are afraid of upsetting their parents or teachers by bringing it up; while others are too overwhelmed by their feelings to open up a discussion. As adults we can at least try to assess how children are feeling in order to decide whether a discussion is appropriate.

Children who are troubled but have difficulty talking about their concerns may need special attention. It can be helpful if we gently start the conversation ourselves. You might ask opening questions such as, "How do you feel about what's happening in the world?" Later, you might want to ask, "What are you or your friends thinking and talking about in terms of the world situation?" No matter what their response is, we need to listen--carefully and with care--to what our children have to say.

6. It feels so passive just to listen. Is it appropriate to tell children how I feel?
There are several pitfalls in sharing feelings about violent events outright with children. A serious one is that we might burden them with our adult concerns, raising new questions and fears for them, rather than helping them deal with questions and fears they already have. Sometimes, children feel that they need to take care of us and our feelings. Another is that we might cut off the expression of what's on their minds and in their hearts as we get wrapped up in expressing what's on ours, and thus miss hearing what children want to tell us. We might simply find ourselves talking over their heads, answering questions that weren't asked, providing information that isn't useful, satisfying our need to "give" children something rather than satisfying their need to be heard and understood. We wouldn't want to communicate the message that what they have to say is not important.

This is not to say, however, that we need to be passive--good listening is a very active process. After we've listened carefully, it may then be appropriate for us to respond in ways that provide assurance that the adults in their lives care and are trying to promote safety, security, and peace. We may also want to say that we share some of the same feelings and remind children that we'll be together during these difficult times.

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7. How can I listen to children in the most effective and helpful way?
As you listen to children, show that you are interested and attentive. Try to understand what they are saying from their point of view. Don't make judgments about what they say, no matter how silly or illogical it may sound to you at first. If you don't understand something, ask them to explain it. Show your respect for them and their ideas.

As parents, teachers, and caregivers know, children are not always able to express what they mean or what they feel, and what they say doesn't always mean the same thing for them as it does for adults. Sometimes it takes a bit of gentle probing to find out what's going on behind the initial words they utter. Comments such as, "That's interesting, can you tell me more about that?" or, "What do you mean by...?" or, "How long have you been feeling...?" are examples of ways to elicit more information from children without judging what they are saying as right or wrong.

If they seem to be struggling to make something clear, it can be particularly useful and reassuring to have you help them summarize and focus their concerns. For example, you might say, "Are you saying you're scared that the Iraqi government might attack us?" Or, "So, you're worried about the children who live in cities being bombed?" Or, "You've heard Saddam Hussein did horrible things to the Iraqi people and you want to know if that's true?" Clarifying questions and statements help children sort out their ideas and feelings and show them they've been heard and respected without interfering with their thinking process.

Good listening also involves paying very careful attention to the things children may not be saying. Be aware of their nonverbal messages--facial expressions, fidgeting, gestures, posture, tone of voice, or others--which indicate that strong emotions may be present.

It is reassuring to children to have adults acknowledge that their feelings are okay. A comment such as, "You seem sad when we talk about this. I feel sad too," tells a child that the feelings are not only normal and understandable, but that you have similar feelings as well and are still able to cope.

8. What if children don't want to talk about these issues?
If you ask good opening questions and the child clearly isn't interested in talking about certain issues, then don't push. Again, it's important for us to communicate to children our respect for how they feel. This extends to respecting their right not to talk about something they don't feel ready to talk about. There are some children who simply aren't concerned about these things and there's no reason to force them into this awareness. For other children, sharing what they feel may be more easily expressed in another medium besides talking, for example through play or drawings.

Some children are reluctant to talk about violent events because their feelings of fear and confusion overwhelm them, or because they don't feel confident that adults will be able to hear their concerns and respond to them in a way that makes sense. Adolescents may be more reluctant to talk if they perceive their parents and/or teachers having different opinions. They may think that the adults in their lives will try to impose their beliefs on them. These young people need to know that the doors to communication are open when they are ready. One way to let them know this might be to say something like, "Are you and your friends talking about what is happening in Iraq? I'd be really interested in hearing about what you think. Let me know if you want to talk."

Be aware of signals young children send out through their play, their drawing and writing, their spontaneous conversation, and other ways they might communicate about their preoccupations. Young children often use their play instead of words to work out what they are hearing, and observing them as they play can give us important clues about their thoughts and feelings. Especially with young children, be aware of other signs that could mean they are stressed, such as: irritability, sleep disturbances, separation problems, and regression in recent developmental accomplishments. Similarly, if you observe children drawing one violent scene after another, overhear conversations where they seem unnaturally concerned with violence and hopelessness, or if your children seem in any way preoccupied with images of destruction, then it is appropriate for you to let them know that you have noticed this and that you wonder if they could tell you more about it. Use your own judgment, and listen attentively to what they have to say.

Once you have really listened to what is on a child's mind and in their heart, you will be in a far better position to respond to them.

9. How do I deal with the different emotions that children may have about these issues?
It is natural and healthy for there to be a wide range of emotions about any particular conflict. Some children will be sad, anxious, and even fearful for their own family's safety; others will be confused about how to make sense of the events; and others will have little reaction. Some will respond with excitement and anticipation, while others will have a mix of emotions--fear, sorrow, and worry, for example. Some will respond with anger at the Iraqi and/or U.S. Governments' actions leading up to or during the war.

Deep feelings are not atypical for children trying to come to terms with death and suffering and the reasons that people resort to violence. It is our role as adults to help them explore these feelings.

The feelings children have will generally be attached to the developmental issues that are most pressing for them. For early elementary school children it will usually be issues of separation and safety. For older elementary and middle school children it will be issues of fairness and care for others. For adolescents it will often involve the ethical dilemmas posed by the situation.

Listening closely and discerning what some underlying issues might be will help your responses be more productive. In some areas, such as concerns for personal safety, we can provide reassurance by making specific plans with children around what we would need to do in the event of an emergency. In other cases, our role should be that of a listener. Listening in and of itself can be reassuring to children.

Some students might be excited by reported military victories, or upset about reported defeats. Caution about eupohoria or dejection in the early stages of battles or wars is warranted, as a cursory glance at the history of surprise reversals in warfare will attest. Helping students to question simplistic win-lose thinking is also important (please see question #25), because reality is often more complicated than that. Older students might want to read President Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, for example, as he tried to reach out, even on the verge of victory, to bind up the wounds of war.

Other students might become fascinated with the technical capabilities of military hardware. It's useful to promote explorations of scientific and engineering principles, while also complicating students' thinking by encouraging students to comprehend the human consequences of violence for all sides.

Bringing closure to discussions of feelings is sometimes difficult. Rather than trying to summarize or falsely reassure children, it is best to simply thank them for sharing so deeply and affirm how much you and they care about others and the world around them. You can express that it is this caring that makes you feel more hopeful and gives you strength.

In order to be there for our children, it can also be useful to find ways to talk in depth with, and receive support from, other adults in our lives. Teachers in some schools after September 11, 2001, for example, formed school-staff discussion groups in order to listen to and support each other.

Students will also have a wide range of opinions about the war. Please see section three of this guide (questions 20 and above) for suggestions about promoting constructive dialogues.

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10. After I have listened to children's concerns, how do I respond? Is it helpful to give them facts?
It is best not to jump in and tell children everything we think or know about the particular situation, even after we have heard what's on their minds. Nevertheless, there are a number of helpful responses we can make. Whatever our response, it is important that we provide reassurance to the children we care about.

First, we can respond to the obvious items of misinformation that they have picked up and help them distinguish fantasy from reality. When we have listened to what they think and feel, we can gently correct their misinformation by making factual statements. For example, in response to the commonly held belief among young students that tall buildings fell down many times in multiple locations on September 11, 2001, we could inform them, "Even though you might have seen the World Trade Center fall down many times as they replay pictures of those same two buildings falling down over and over again on TV, it happened once on that one day in New York City."

We can also answer children's direct questions in simple and straightforward terms. A child who asks, "What are smart bombs?" or, "What is a terrorist?" deserves a factual answer. If you think there is more to the question than is first apparent--underlying confusions or unexpressed anxiety--then ask an open-ended question to determine what may be going on for them and then listen carefully. Keep your responses brief and simple. Give children a chance to respond to each of your comments before saying more. Follow the lead of children's questions and give no more information than is asked for. Going off on one's own tangent is an easy trap for adults to fall into when answering a child's questions.

The answers to some questions that children ask are not always clear and straightforward. Some are much deeper. When children ask such questions as, "How come we have war?" or, "What will happen when the war is over?" we can explain that some people think one way about it and others think another. We might ask, "What do you think?" It is important for children to hear that there are differences of opinion and different ways of seeing the conflict.

Finally, we can give our children the opportunity to continue to explore their questions and to learn from this conflict. Children often use play to further explore and work out what they are hearing in regard to a violent situation. For instance, war play is a common phenomenon, particularly among young boys. Some schools decide that war play is not appropriate on school grounds. If your school does ban war play, it is important to find other avenues where children know it is okay to work out what they hear with the support of adults, for instance through drawings and discussions. If children are engaging in war play, we can utilize it as an opportunity to learn what they're thinking and discuss what the play means to them. Some children get stuck on imitating the same violent actions over and over. For play to meet children's needs, it needs to evolve and become more complicated. Providing open-ended props like clay, rescue equipment, and toy medical supplies, can help young people make this transition.

For older children and adolescents, conflicts such as the war in Iraq, and the events on and after September 11, 2001, raise important issues about the roots of violence, the ways conflicts are best resolved, and how to increase security. For adolescents concerned about their own potential involvement in war, it raises questions about their own options and choices. These are important issues for young people to talk about and think through with adults they trust.

At the same time, young people can derive hope by learning about conflict resolution and developing concrete skills to resolve conflict nonviolently in their own lives. This is an opportunity for them to explore alternative means of resolving conflicts and ways that, even when a conflict becomes violent, people continue to work toward its resolution. In addition, it would be valuable for them to think about how they may pursue a constructive response that promotes peace and security in their schools and neighborhoods.

11. I have strong opinions about what is happening. Is it useful to share my beliefs with children?
Because the opinions of adults in a child's life carry such weight (especially with younger children), we recommend that you focus on what the child is thinking and feeling. Stating an opinion, especially in the early stages of discussion, can block open communication by preventing children, who might hold different opinions, from openly sharing and discussing them for fear of disapproval. It might also shift a child's attention to thinking that they may need to take care of your feelings rather than exploring their own. Since most older children are aware of their parents' opinions anyway, it is perhaps more important to help children to think critically about many points of view and arrive at their own conclusions.

However, it is important to communicate to children the value of hearing other points of view and respecting the people who hold them. Helping children understand that the issue of violence, for example, is a complex one allows them to feel that their opinions can make a contribution to our understanding of the issue. We recommend that you stress the importance of their examining a variety of points of view, as well as your own, and their learning to appreciate what each has to offer.

Difference of opinion can be very healthy, and something that both adults and children can learn from. Often, however, these differences degenerate into unproductive arguments where both the adult and child become entrenched in their positions. Constructive dialogue begins with a good deal of listening and a sincere effort to understand both what the other person is saying and the beliefs that underly their point of view. It is important to avoid statements that categorically dismiss an adolescent's opinions such as, "When you grow up you'll understand." or, "You don't know what you're talking about." Instead, restate what the child has said to make sure you understand it. Listen carefully to the child's point of view, and ask questions to help him or her clarify it. Rather than immediately countering statements with which you disagree, you can ask questions that can help you better understand the child's perspective.

There are respectful ways of disagreeing which you can model by stating your disagreements in the form of, "I experience things differently. I think that..." rather than telling the child that he or she is wrong. The goal, after all, is not to dictate opinions to children, but rather to help them engage in critical thinking and to make their own reasoned decisions about controversial issues. Finally, help your child understand that a person's opinions can change, and that a decision reached today might be different tomorrow with the addition of new ideas and information.

12. How can I talk with children if I feel that my own grasp of the facts and issues is inadequate?
Fortunately, we don't need to be experts or know all the facts about something in order to listen to children. The questions of very young children seldom require complicated technical answers. When older children ask for information we don't have, it is fine to say something like, "That's an interesting question, and I don't know the answer. How can we find that out together?" The process of figuring out where to get the information, and going through the steps to obtain it, can be a powerfully reassuring experience for children, especially when a trusted adult participates with them. In a small but significant way, this experience can demonstrate for young people that there are orderly ways to go about solving problems and that the world is not beyond our understanding. If a child's questions don't lend themselves to this kind of research process, it is equally effective to say something like, "I don't know the answer to that and I'm not sure anyone does. I do know, however, that many thoughtful people throughout the world are working hard to understand this issue."

13. How can I reassure and comfort children when I honestly don't feel hopeful myself?
On one hand, it is certainly appropriate for adults to acknowledge that they, too, are concerned about the state of the world. On the other hand, we must not impose our feelings on children. If you really believe that your own concerns may be overwhelming to the children in your life, then you might seek out an adult support system. This might be a group of other adults with similar feelings who need to share and discuss their concerns and questions. If a support group isn't practical, then you might find a competent, caring individual to talk with to sort out your feelings. It then becomes easier to offer genuine help to children.

14. What can I say that is both comforting and reassuring?
Just by listening to children you are providing reassurance. By your ability to listen calmly, even to concerns which might seem unrealistic, you communicate that their fears are not too frightening to deal with. By trying to understand children, you communicate that their feelings are neither abnormal nor silly, and you communicate the reassurance that they are not alone with their concerns.

You can also help children find a way to step out of their position of powerlessness. You can tell them honestly that their concerns are quite healthy because people's concern is the first step toward doing something to make the world safer. The most effective antidote to anxiety, fear, or powerlessness is action. Engage them in a conversation about the way in which their school is working to make it a more peaceful place and explore ways in which they might be an active part of the effort to create a peaceful community in their school, home, and neighborhood. You can also engage them in writing letters to members of Congress, the local newspaper, or governments around the world to express their feelings and views on the war.
About Educators for Social Responsibility

Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) is a national non-profit organization that was founded in 1982. Our mission is to make teaching social responsibility a core practice in education so that young people develop the convictions and skills to shape a safe, sustainable, democratic, and just world.

ESR is a national leader in educational reform. Our work spans the fields of social and emotional learning, character education, conflict resolution, diversity education, civic engagement, prevention programming, youth development, and secondary school improvement. We offer comprehensive programs, staff development, consultation, and resources for adults who teach children and young people preschool through high school, in settings including K-12 schools, early childhood centers, and afterschool programs. We also publish high quality resources for anyone involved in the lives of young people including our award-winning Adventures in Peacemaking series and our bestselling Conflict Resolution Education Series. You can learn more about our award-winning resources and programs by visiting us at http://www.esrnational.org or by contacting us at 1-800-370-2515.

For more information about workshops and resources addressing conflict resolution, social and emotional learning, character development, peaceable schools, and the appreciation of diversity, please call ESR at 1-800-370-2515, or email us at educators@esrnational.org.

Credits

This guide, published by Educators for Social Responsibility and written by Sheldon Berman, Sam Diener, Larry Dieringer, and Linda Lantieri, was adapted from Talking About War in the Persian Gulf (1991) by Susan Jones and Sheldon Berman. We thank the following for their contributions in assisting with this version of the guide: Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Sherrie Gammage, Diane Levin, Carol Lieber, Jeff Perkins, Jennifer Selfridge, and the rest of the staff of Educators for Social Responsibility, 23 Garden Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, (617) 492-1764.

Copyright 2003, Educators for Social Responsibility. All rights reserved. Inquiries regarding permission to reprint all or part of this guide should be addressed to: Permissions Editor, Educators for Social Responsibility, 23 Garden St., Cambridge, MA 02138. Please send comments about this guide, or e-mail inquiries about reprinting rights, to: educators@esrnational.org.

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