No peace from war and peace When news and stress become unrelenting PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

February 18, 1991|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Evening Sun Staff

FOR MANY families, early evening is the worst of times. Even without a war.

Children and adults, both in their own worlds for the last eight or 10 hours, are coming back together, bringing with them the joys and frustrations of their day, expecting support and comfort, as well as food.

Parents are tired, kids are tired. And still there are dinner and homework and phone calls and chores and, in most homes, tension.

War can make it worse.

Even in families not directly affected by the Persian Gulf war, anxiety levels may be higher than usual, experts say. Children may be troubled by what they've talked about in school; adults may be upset by the news they've heard -- or not heard -- during the day.

Add to this mix the nightly news with film of bodies being carried from a bombed-out structure or the on-again, off-again promise of peace. Adults, riveted to this news, find themselves torn between home and war fronts. One begins to aggravate the other.

"It's really scary [for children] to feel that the adults are not in control," says Janice Ellis, director of Child's World, a child care center at Villa Julie College.

"A lot of people don't think they are affected by the war." Parents need to think about how they are feeling and to realize those feelings "have a direct effect on children's moods," she says.

Parents also need to understand the messages they are sending, says Dr. Patricia Fossarelli, a pediatrician at St. Agnes Hospital. Parents who contend everything is "just fine," while staring at the TV are not reassuring their children.

"Kids see what their parents are thinking about. Kids can read their actions, their faces," says Fossarelli.

Even very young children will pick up on the anxieties of those around them and sometimes translate it into disruptive behavior, further aggravating the family situation.

Ellis says she has recently noticed, even among the 3- and 4-year-olds at Child's World, behavior that denotes anxiety. "What we're seeing is pre-Christmas behavior. They just can't settle down. We have been attributing it to the war," she says.

Although none of these youngsters has family members in the Middle East, ''it's on their minds,'' Ellis says.

Older children, who can begin to understand the war and its ramifications, have different anxieties and resulting behavior, says Joseph Procaccini, professor of education at Loyola College.

Those old enough to realize their own parents won't have to fight may be beset by fears of terrorism at home, he says. Teen-agers whose parents travel frequently are no longer carefree about it. They are, he says, more likely now to see their parents off with a feeling "that they may or may not return."

For this generation of children, war is "a whole new experience," says Procaccini. "We've done a good job in our schools and families over the last 20 years teaching respect for life. Then, we turn around and say 'go kill somebody.'

"What we're calling for is a major shift in philosophy," he says.

Such fears and frustrations among family members play themselves out in ways totally unrelated to war, Procaccini says.

Fossarelli saw this recently in an 8- or 9-year-old boy who suddenly did not want to go to school. After some probing, she discovered his reluctance had nothing to do with school. Rather, he was afraid a bomb would be dropped there. "That's one little boy typical of many,'' she says.

Adults, too, are likely to find their own behavior altered by the war. Lack of sleep, distractions, worry and other symptoms of anxiety may make parents irritable.

"War . . . allows people to play out other things that are going on in their lives,'' observes Procaccini. ''It opens up old wounds. It allows them to be angry or sad. It reminds us of the downside of the human condition."

These feelings, he says, often clash with the intentions of many adults who "try to develop hope in children. War fosters despair."

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