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Talking to children about war

World events, near and far, have parents concerned about their children's reaction to the news and how to help them cope with the information and their emotions. We offer the following information to inform parents of young children about the nature of their child's socio-emotional and intellectual world and how to support their child's development in difficult times.

  1. Children need to feel safe. Sticking to the familiar and regular routines provides the security and consistency that children need in order to explore and discover.
  2. Young children's mental capacity to understand events and images of violence is limited. A preschooler, whose understanding of time and space is weak, may assume that what they are seeing on TV is close to home and so may become scared. As young children don't have the ability to filter what is coming through the news, their worries are created from bits of information that then take on a life of their own. Turn off the TV and reduce the minute-to-minute updates of the situation.
  3. Very young children are sensitive to your moods and emotions. When a parent is anxious or worried, your child will pick up on it. Monitor your behaviour with others and keep your emotions in check. Children should not have to feel that they must be in control and taking care of their parent's emotional needs.
  4. If your child appears to be worried, help her to identify those feelings by labelling them. It is important that young children learn from an early age that it is good to talk about feelings so that an adult can help. Give the child the words for her feelings, e.g., "I can see you are feeling scared, angry, sad, or worried. Let Mommy help."
  5. Keep calm when your child is upset. Remember, you cannot be helpful unless you are in control of your own emotions. If you acknowledge and validate your child's fears and emotions with a supportive hug, your child will learn that you are available and there for them when they need you most.
  6. Be aware of any changes in behaviour or sleeping and eating patterns. Depending on your child's temperament and stage of development, anxiety and worry may come out as increased clinginess, crying and aggression; fear of separation from a parent; quiet or withdrawn state; regression in toileting and thumb sucking; and finally complaints of head and stomach aches. Consult your family physician if some of these changes persist.
  7. Children often express their fears or concerns through pretend play. Your child may enact aggressive or violent events in his play as a way to work through thoughts, ideas or emotions that feel out of his control. If your child becomes upset in this play, comfort him and suggest another activity, such as drawing, which is a good alternative outlet to express his emotions.

    If the play becomes violent, intervene and talk to him about what he is thinking and feeling. Correct any gross misrepresentations and try to make him feel safe. If your child becomes obsessed with violent images for more than a few days, consult your family physician or a children's mental health professional.
  8. Answer children's questions using words and concepts that are at their developmental level. Never dismiss a child's need to know and have his questions answered, but how you answer these inquiries is as important as what you say. It is important to stay calm even if the questions cause some discomfort. As the average preschooler's thinking is very concrete and egocentric, keep the information simple, limited to what they need to know and related to how they view the world (i.e., they will not grasp details or consequences). Reassure the child that adults in the world are trying to take care of a problem and that children do not have to worry.
  9. Create a relaxing and positive environment for your child. Help your child to focus on happy and good things. Tension and strong feelings can be released by playing with water, sand or playdough and jumping on cushions. Read favourite stories and listen to music together. Most importantly hug your child and let her know that you love her.

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