War is brutal, ugly and profoundly disturbing -- exactly...

Mortal Matters

February 11, 1991|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Universal Press Syndicate

War is brutal, ugly and profoundly disturbing -- exactly the kind of thing from which any parent would want to shield a child.

But when a nation goes to war, it's hard to hide the truth. Parents who have diligently protected their children from the harsher realities of life are now getting tough questions about bombs and missiles, or being asked to explain the difference between chemical and biological weapons.

To their credit, many news organizations are trying to help. But the reporting aimed at children often illustrate the difficulty adults have in giving up the big words like "logistics" or "strategizing" or "technological" in favor of simple terms and examples that children can relate to.

Even so, most American children seem to have gotten the message that this war poses no immediate physical threat to them. Saddam Hussein's missiles cannot reach America, and there are many layers of protection between most Americans and the threat of terrorism.

For most of us, children or adult, the real challenge of this war is simply to continue to go about our daily lives as best we can.

But for many children, the fears stirred up by the war are not for themselves, but for a father or mother or other relative who is serving in the Persian Gulf. For these children, the war is very real and very threatening.

One way adults can help is not to sugarcoat reality or to make promises about things they cannot control. Children are literal, and a promise not kept is felt as a betrayal.

Denise McNaught, executive director of the National Childhood Grief Center in Minneapolis, suggests that parents leaving for the gulf can say things like "I have every intention of coming back," or "I'm planning to come back," rather than "I promise you I'll be back." Those kinds of statements help put the situation in context. They can be reinforced by the parent left at home, or by the children's temporary guardians and caretakers.

Ms. McNaught also suggests that adults be as factual as possible. They should tell children, for instance, that they simply don't know how long the war will last or how it will come to an end. Uncertainties are not easy to accept, either for children or adults, but they are part of life -- and especially so in wartime.

The important thing, Ms. McNaught says, is to try give children a sense of security, along with information that they can handle at their age level. A good way to judge how much or what kind of information they want is to make sure the discussion goes two ways.

"Build from where the child is," Ms. McNaught says. "Ask them, 'What is your understanding of war?' or 'What do you want to know about the war?' Then go from there."

A discussion, rather than simply a lecture or instructions about how to feel, will be much more helpful and reassuring to any child.

But as Ms. McNaught points out, words can't provide all the comfort children need. Sometimes the best therapy for fear and uncertainty is a hug or a pat on the back, or simply pulling them onto the couch with you. And, she says, when you talk with them, try kneeling down and looking at them, eye to eye.

Thank goodness children are resilient. They need that resilience in time of war -- but, then, so do we all.

For the next few weeks Mortal Matters will be concentrating on issues related to the Persian Gulf War. Send your questions, comments or suggestions to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, Universal Press Syndicate, 4900 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64112.

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