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Help Kids Cope with Shocking News from Iraq
by Kara Gavin


May 22, 2004

For almost three weeks, it's been impossible to avoid the horrible images and stories: Iraqi prisoners, stripped and abused by American soldiers. An American civilian beheaded in front of a video camera. And a steady drumbeat of casualties and bombings throughout Iraq.

It's been a struggle for adults to understand these events, as emotions of disbelief and shame mix with outrage and confusion. But what about children and teens? Depending on their age and how much they've seen or heard, the news and pictures may affect them too - in ways that parents might not predict.

That's why it's crucial for parents to take time now, while the news is still fresh, to talk with their children about what they're feeling, and keep an eye on how much they're seeing and hearing, says a University of Michigan child psychologist.

"For children who view disturbing images and video footage related to the atrocities happening in Iraq, this can be very damaging in an emotional sense, particularly if they don't have an adult to monitor the information they're seeing, to talk with them about what's happening, and to explain the situation at their age level," says Michelle Kees, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the U-M Medical School who specializes in treating children who have experienced traumatic events.

"These images are available virtually everywhere," Kees reminds parents, "and they have a graphic nature which even recent generations haven't seen." From the front page of Internet sites, to the newspapers and magazines at the grocery store, to the television playing in the background, parents can almost assume that their children have seen some of these images. And they may have heard more from schoolyard talk, classroom discussions and overheard adult conversations.

Kees notes that many children won't suffer negative psychological effects from exposure to the recent news, but advises parents to keep an eye out for signs that their child isn't coping well, and to keep communicating as events continue to unfold.

"In understanding how children respond to traumatic events, it's important to keep in mind that some children won't show a response. Some children are very resilient in nature," she says. "Some children are also more shielded from information or are desensitized to these kinds of events. So they see them, they're fine, they keep playing, they keep going on about their normal lives. But other children do definitely show more of a traumatic reaction to observing difficult war images."

"Seeing the images of 'good guys' committing bad acts is very confusing for adults, so obviously it's going to be confusing for our children," says Kees. "We still don't know the full extent of what's happened, and everywhere you look there's blame being placed. So as adults try to understand this, it can also be particularly difficult for children to understand."

Certain children, including those whose parents or relatives are in the military, those of Arab or Muslim heritage, and those who have suffered some major trauma in the past, may be especially prone to negative effects from current news, she adds. If a military parent is stationed overseas, even outside of Iraq, a child may see any troubling news items as threatening to his or her parent.

Kees offers some specific tips for parents in this troubling time:

  • Ask your child what he or she has seen or heard about events in Iraq. For example, what are children at school saying? Have teachers discussed it in class? Have they only heard that something bad happened, and that American soldiers were involved, or have they seen specific pictures or heard vivid descriptions? Get a sense of how much your child has been exposed to, and how they're reacting so far. If your child repeats something that's incorrect, or that they've misunderstood, make sure to provide accurate information. If you're aware of more information that might help them understand better, offer it.
  • Monitor what your child sees, reads and hears, as much as possible, about current events. Watch or read the news with your children, or be available to them to talk about what they are seeing and hearing. Children under the age of eight years should probably be shielded from news that contains violent images or descriptions. For older children, who have the ability to process information better, and who have access to information outside a parent's watch, the best advice is simply to talk. "We recommend opening up a dialogue with them, and following your child's lead," says Kees.
  • Give information at a level appropriate to your child's age. A lot of the recent news may have passed over the heads of young children, or they may just need a reassurance that they are safe and the events happening in Iraq are far away and won't affect them. Kees doesn't recommend offering detailed information to preschoolers or young school-age children. But older school-age kids and teens need more help in dealing with the news, and responding to their questions. "In talking with your older children, it's important that you process with them the intensity of their emotions, and recognize the significance of these events," says Kees. If you don't know the answer to some of their questions, acknowledge that, and offer to find out an answer if there is one.
  • Realize that your own confusion and anxiety about recent news may affect your child. Given the shocking nature of the recent news, and the ongoing nature of the effort to find out what happened, it's all right to tell your child that you're confused, or angry, or saddened, about what has happened. That can help validate your child's own feelings, and set an example for how to cope. But, Kees says, if recent events have been especially upsetting for you, it might be best to keep the full extent of your emotions from your children. Young children, even toddlers, can sense a parent's anxiety or sadness, and be confused. Take a few moments alone, or find someone you can talk to about what you're feeling.
  • Talk about the larger issues, and keep talking even if your opinions differ. "We run the risk in our country right now of becoming desensitized to violence and the horrific nature of the acts that have happened in Iraq," Kees explains. "We owe it to our older children to be above this tendency, to welcome them into a discussion of the specific details, and to open the door for them so they have an opportunity to share." Teens may have begun to form strong opinions about the war, or about justice, that conflict with their parents' feelings. Kees recommends parents keep the lines of communication open, so that their teen feels they can come back to talk as new events occur.
  • Watch for changes in behavior that might signal negative psychological effects. Kees' experience as a child psychologist, and research by others on children's behavior after the September 11 attacks, tells her that some children will be deeply affected by the news of recent weeks, and that they may express this in ways parents might not expect.

"What we see in children varies based upon their age," she says. "Most commonly we might see a regression of behavior, so children who had previously achieved a developmental level start sliding backwards. For example, thumb-sucking or bed-wetting reemerges, or we might see more clinging, more anxiety, or more apprehension about being separated from parents." Children may also be sadder, or withdrawn, or lose interest in things they used to enjoy a lot. Or, they may have a more anger-based response, with irritability and crabbiness.

If your child's appetite at mealtimes changes, or their sleep patterns are disturbed, in the days after seeing shocking news, that may be a sign they've been affected. Even nightmares that don't involve specific images or people from the news may be related.

"Nightmares are a classic symptom of post-traumatic stress, and sometimes the content of the dream is not specific to what's distressing the child," Kees says. "But any type of change in previous behavior should be taken seriously by parents."

If you do notice a change, she recommends talking with your child about what's bothering him or her. If your child's behavior changes dramatically or the changes are long-lasting, or if your child has lived through a war-related or terrorism-related loss in the past, he or she may need professional counseling.

In all, Kees says, only time will tell how America's children and teenagers will be affected by recent events. "In my own practice, having talked with children and adolescents who I see, many have passed this off as, 'Oh, something else that happened in Iraq.' As an adult, that's frightening to me because of the significance of these events. But on the other hand, maybe this is an indicator of their resilience and their ability to assimilate even the most difficult of information. I don't think we can full answer that question yet. Time will show how this generation of children will do."

More resources for parents:

Talking to kids about war and terrorism: University of Michigan Health System's Your Child site

Reactions & guidelines for children following trauma/disaster: American Psychological Association (co-authored by Kees)

Talking to children about war and terrorism: American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Coping in Unsettling Times: National Association of School Psychologists



Source of News Release:

University of Michigan Health System 
Web Site


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