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COPING CHILDREN AND WAR : Don't Tell All : Parents should provide some facts along with reassurance. But too much information only heightens anxiety.

January 24, 1991|AURORA MACKEY ARMSTRONG and ADRIANNE GOODMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Now that war has erupted in the Persian Gulf, several local psychologists and educators expect that many children will become fearful or anxious, wondering how the war will affect them.

Some children may verbalize their emotions or ask questions at school or at home, experts said. But others may express their feelings of anxiety in a different way.

"One of the things we may see in kids is an increase in trouble sleeping, nightmares and a variety of stress symptoms usually seen in adults," said Stephen Kibrick, a staff psychologist at Charter Hospital in Thousand Oaks. "It may not develop immediately, but some kids find it difficult to talk directly about their fears. A lot of times they displace them instead."

Jeffrey C. Nelsen, principal at both Lincoln and Pierpont elementary schools in Ventura, said as the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to comply with the United Nations resolution on Kuwait came and went, there was "a noticeable increase" in the concern of students. "Some tend to be a little silly and give Rambo-type responses, but on the whole, when I'm in a class and someone asks me how it's going, the room gets very quiet."

Teachers also have seen a change. "I'm finding they're scared, they're so scared," said Marti Lockwood, a fifth-grade teacher at Hueneme Elementary School. "I feel it's my duty as a teacher to inform these kids and to encourage them to watch the news. . . . I encourage kids to talk openly about their feelings."

Some anxiety, psychologists say, may come if a child receives too little information and is left only with his or her imagination. Unless their misconceptions are addressed, "kids will be kids and say there is a bomb that will blow everyone up," said Charles Bock, principal of Berylwood School in Simi Valley.

But too much information, experts add, also can cause problems.

"Some teachers may pay too much attention to it and overflood a young child with all kinds of images he can't handle," said Theobold Mordey, a clinical psychologist in Thousand Oaks, who worked with emotionally disturbed children for 19 years at Camarillo State Hospital. "What you tell a child must be geared to the child's ability to understand."

Last week, teachers in the Simi Valley Unified School District were given a similar message when they received an educational services bulletin with guidelines for discussing the Persian Gulf crisis in the classroom. In addition to advising teachers to "be sensitive to students and staff who have family members or friends" in the Middle East, the bulletin urged teachers to make classroom discussion "age-appropriate . . . to minimize anxiety."

But psychologists and teachers said parents still are in the best position to reassure their children about war--even if the task isn't easy. "Usually I advise parents to be pretty honest about things like divorce and separation, but a lot of parents will have a hard time with the issue of war," Kibrick said. "It's difficult for a lot of them to draw the line between being honest with their child and telling so much that their child is left with heightened anxiety."

How should you handle your child's questions about war? Below are some guidelines from professionals:

* Don't assume your child doesn't have questions or concerns just because he or she hasn't said anything.

"Ask the child how he feels, if he's worried or if he's scared," Mordey said. "Sometimes they just need to know they can talk about it."

* Children should be reassured that they and their families are not in danger.

"Kids really personalize things and they'll want to know if it will affect them at their house," said Susan Parks, director of elementary curriculum for the Simi Valley district. "They need to know they are safe."

* Most young children have little or no sense of geography, and telling them only that the war is in Iraq may do little to alleviate their fears.

"I remember my mom telling me that my dad fought in Vietnam, and I thought it was like another street," said David Janowski, a 16-year-old YMCA counselor in Simi Valley. Some psychologists recommend showing a child a map of the Middle East to help explain that it is very far away.

* Let your answers be guided by the child's questions.

One psychologist likened the situation to the story about a little boy who asked his mother where he came from. After the mother gave an in-depth explanation about the facts of life, the boy said, "Billy said he came from Michigan."

"Sometimes you need to ask a few questions yourself to find out what the child really wants to know," Kibrick said.

* Be honest, but avoid lengthy explanations with younger children.

"If a younger child asks about germ warfare, for instance, I'd probably say something like 'There has been talk of using germs to make people sick instead of using bullets,' and then leave it at that," Parks said. "It's OK to let them think it's like a cold or the flu."

* Watch for behavioral changes that may stem from stress over the war, including mood swings, anxiety and depression.

Gaye Kubat, Oxnard's manager of special education who oversees the district's eight full- and part-time psychologists, said parents can seek counseling or referrals from school officials if necessary.

* Parents should carefully consider whether to allow younger children to watch certain news programs.

"The media have made war much more real and brought it into our living rooms. I think that's bound to have more of an impact on kids," Kibrick said. "Children need security and to know there is order and predictability in their lives. The news also comes on at 11, after kids are asleep."

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