URBANA - Five-year-old Kai Ebata knows there is a war going on, although he may not understand much about what that means.
His father has told him some of the very basic facts, and Kai has asked a few questions based on his limited knowledge of war from videos or children's stories.
"I really don't expose him to things on TV yet, to the news coverage," said his father Aaron Ebata, a professor of human and community development at the University of Illinois. "We've talked about war real generally without going into a whole lot of detail, mainly because he isn't interested in a whole lot of detail.
"After one of our conversations, he came back with, 'Here's what I would do if I were president.' I can tell he's trying to make sense and trying to process it."
Ebata expects more questions from his son, and he said many other parents may find their children more anxious and confused as well, as the war intensifies and there is more news of casualties or prisoners of war.
Ebata said parents should talk with their children about the war, but they need to understand what their children want from them.
"One of the things they need to watch out for is what are they really asking - are they asking for information or asking for reassurance?" Ebata said.
Young children may be confused when they hear adults talking about things they don't understand. "People are talking about the unknown and it's scary," he said.
He suggests parents limit the exposure of young children - those under age 7 or 8 - to TV coverage of the war. Parents may be feeling anxious themselves, and their children will pick up on those feelings. Ebata said parents need to assure young children they are not upset with them.
They may also notice children are more clingy than usual, have more trouble separating from their parents, have difficulty sleeping or are less willing to comply with parents' requests. Ebata said maintaining a family's normal routine goes a long way to reassuring children they are safe.
"These are typical symptoms of stress or anxiety. It's not anything particular to war itself," he said.
Parents of adolescents will likely be answering tougher questions, such as why we have to fight or what are parents' beliefs about the war. They may have questions about news coverage of casualties or captured American soldiers.
"There may be questions like, 'What do they do to prisoners? Are they OK?'" Ebata said.
Older children will also be more aware of differing opinions about the war, with news about anti-war rallies, yard signs expressing different viewpoints and discussions at school.
"Parents need to explain some people are very patriotic and that means support and not calling this into question, whereas other people believe patriotism is speaking up and asking questions," he said. "While most kids look to their parents for bigger perspectives, there might be differences between parents and kids and how they feel about what is going on. Parents need to explain what their views and values are and not shut kids down, because they are exploring and trying to figure out what they think."
Often older children will want to find out more about war to help them manage their feelings.
They may also benefit from doing something concrete to counteract feelings of helplessness, such as writing letters to a soldier, supporting humanitarian aid for Iraqi children, or volunteering for their local Red Cross.
"If kids can be encouraged to take some active role in citizenship, one thing they learn is they can take an active role in other things going on in their communities too, not just during wartime but during other times," Ebata said.
Finally, parents need to monitor their own feelings, he said.
"Oftentimes after something happens like this, we focus our attention on the kids, but ... it's the kind of time when parents need to understand that watching these images may raise a whole bunch of issues for themselves," Ebata said. "They might start feeling angry, short-tempered, tired, sad, and maybe not tie it into (the fact that) they've been watching 10 hours of television."
He said parents also need a break from too much exposure to war coverage, to maintain their sense of reality at home and control their stress levels.
In his own household, Ebata tries to relate the conflict in Iraq to conflicts in Kai's life.
"In the past, we've talked about stories about war and fighting and warriors and also peacemaking," Ebata said. "I try to tie in these big things with things that happen every day, like fighting with your brother or disagreements with classmates and how you resolve conflict. Sometimes I say, 'I just don't know, Kai,' but I say it in a way that I can not know but still not feel helpless."
Be prepared to discuss war with your children
URBANA - Aaron Ebata, a UI professor of human and community development, has created a Web site with tips for talking with children about war. You can find the Web site at http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/familylife/war.htm. The Web site includes links to other resources for parents to help them talk with their children.
The following are some tips from Ebata:
- Parents should be prepared to spend extra time with young children reassuring them of their safety. To help reduce children's fears, parents should consider limiting their exposure to TV coverage about the war.
- Children may engage in "war play" or stage mock battles. It is a normal way for children to try to understand events. Parents can encourage children to express themselves through art, music or poetry, but they shouldn't be surprised if these activities include depictions of war or death.
- Parents may want to initiate conversations with older children about what they have seen or heard about the war. They should allow them to talk about the news if they want to, but they should also encourage them to continue with their normal activities.
- Parents need to be prepared to answer questions about war in ways appropriate to the age of their child.
- Parents should also talk about their own feelings, beliefs and values.
- Children may find comfort in actions or projects that makes them feel they are making a difference.
You can reach Jodi Heckel at 351-5216 or by e-mail at email@example.com.