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'I Feel Bad Because There Is WAR' : Frightened by war in the Persian Gulf, children may easily confuse rumors with truth. Like their parents, they feel anxious and helpless. Conversation is the surprisingly simple way to deal with almost all of their fears, experts say.

January 30, 1991|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 3-year-old child was riding his bicycle last week when an airplane flew overhead. Terrified, the boy ran inside his house.

"He had no (direct) connection with the war," said Dennis Embry, a child psychologist who has created workbooks for children with relatives serving in Operation Desert Storm. "But he was scared to death."

Experts say that kind of fear is widespread among children who are watching their country at war. They worry about their own proximity to danger, destruction of their homes, invasion by foreigners.

"They are wondering, 'Will the Iraqi bombs come to my neighborhood?,' " said James Garbarino, a Chicago psychologist who is president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development there.

In their fearful state, children may confuse rumors about the war with truth. "I was meeting with a group of junior-high and high-school kids at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base here," said Embry, who is based in Tuscon, Ariz. "They told me they had heard a rumor that 5,000 Iraqis were going to invade their base."

Often, the anxiety and helplessness that children feel in wartime is only a mirror of the emotions their parents are experiencing. The level of wartime worry can paralyze a family as adults try to sort out the issues for themselves, and as they wonder: What do we tell the children?

Just how much, parents ask themselves, do children comprehend about armed conflict that is half a world away? Can young minds embrace the notion of strangers killing one another in the name of war? Can they distinguish between what is happening in the Persian Gulf, and what happens on their Nintendo screen? If they are upset by what they see and hear, what can be done about their trauma?

Talk is the answer to almost all of those questions, the professionals say. Talk to your children to find out what they know and what they feel. Equally important, let them talk to you. The answers may be surprising.

"Children understand a lot about war," said Dr. Lee Salk of the Cornell University Medical School in Manhattan. "But they don't understand everything."

"They understand the danger," Embry said. "They don't understand the politics."

Neither do many parents. Before the United States rushed to its defense, many Americans were not even certain where Kuwait is. The face of Iraq's Saddam Hussein may have become familiar on television and in newspapers, but the topographic and human makeup of his country were vague at best.

"Parents are . . . so confused," said Pat Kirk, the administrator of an outreach program for parents and teachers concerned about the war at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica.

Such bafflement only complicates any effort to comfort children in a time of war.

"If you're anxious, you're not going to be able to help anyone else," said Wayne Sandler, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles who is conducting workshops about the war at Century City Hospital. "The key is to be able to listen to yourself--and to listen to the children."

Experts divide children--and their concerns about the war--into groups based on their age and degree of involvement. Children who have some personal connection to the war--a parent or other relative deployed in the Persian Gulf--will have "special anxiety," said Garbarino, co-author of "No Place to Be a Child: Growing Up in a War Zone," to be published this spring by Lexington Books.

"This is where the feelings will be most intense, in part because the adults are likely to be more worried," he added.

Said Salk, "This is where we have to realize that not only do people we know, friends and relatives, serve to fight in the war, but there's a chance that they may be injured or even killed." Above all, Salk said, children who have a parent serving in the Persian Gulf should be encouraged to talk about how they are feeling. They should be listened to, and their feelings should be honored.

Integrity is essential to these children, said Embry. Even when the truth is painful, it should not be withheld. "We can never say, 'Mommy or Daddy will never die,' " he said. "(Death) is one of the realities of life, and children need to understand it. But we can temper honesty with optimism. We can say, 'Let's hope for the best.' "

"Creative parents" must use their own resources, Salk said, perhaps by praying with the family or by saying something like, "While Daddy may be in danger, let's hope he's not."

Embry suggests that children with parents in the Gulf should be encouraged to write to that parent. Better yet, he said, let the child make a tape recording to send to the parent.

In any high-stress situation, children often internalize their concerns, or refuse to address them directly. "You're seeing a lot of kids who are trying to act out," said Tom Geceivicz, who runs a Red Cross support group in Canton, Me., for families with concerns about the war.

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