Children's Worries in Time of War -- Stanley Greenspan, MD -- 03/19/03

By Stanley Greenspan
WebMD Live Events Transcript

How will you help your children deal with the war in Iraq? What should you say to comfort them? How much media coverage should they see? Stanley Greenspan, MD, author of The Secure Child, joined us to discuss these issues and more on WebMD Live.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Hello Dr. Greenspan. Welcome back to WebMD Live. With so much uncertainty in the world, what can we do to make our children feel more secure?

Greenspan: The key is to spend more time with nurturing interactions. These four principles provide a framework for children feeling more secure:

  1. Children gain their security from being with adults that they trust, in a soothing and nurturing way. This is a time for families to come together.
  2. Security is enhanced when you help the children express through play or conversation whatever is on their mind.
  3. Give them the facts they need to know based on their developmental age.
  4. Help them be involved in constructive actions, such as making cards for people in the military, etc.

These principles and lots of examples of how to apply them to different ages of children are discussed in great detail in my book, The Secure Child. If the child's concerns are addressed in this context, it tends to be experienced by the child in a helpful way.

Moderator: What kind of worries do you think we are going to see children expressing?

Greenspan: Children will have all kinds of worries, from bad things happening to them, their parents, soldiers, other people, as well as heightened worries seemingly unrelated to the war, but intensified because of the general tension in the atmosphere.

Member: My 7-year-old daughter has become very concerned about being bombed. She thinks that if we bomb Iraq, they will drop a bomb on our house. After 9/11, I can't tell her that absolutely won't happen. What are some tips for reassuring her?

Greenspan: The four principles outlined earlier are the best ways to reassure her.

Member: I'm trying hard to keep the television news turned off when my 4 year old is around. I know he's just a little sponge. But he's bound to overhear confusing information anyway. Should I wait for him to ask questions or should I have regular talks with him to find out what might be bothering him?

Greenspan: In the context of the four principles outlined earlier, help him express anything on his mind, including the things he may have seen on TV inadvertently.

Member: I have a 16-year-old who comes home from school every day with a different opinion on whether or not we should be in Iraq. She is obviously being very affected by peer input. Is this healthy or is it an indication that she's not able to speak her own mind?

Greenspan: Neither. It shows that she is curious and struggling to figure this out. And by applying the four principles with lots of brainstorming about what she thinks is best, you will help her put things into perspective.

Member: Again, about our 7-year-old child: She hears everything, so we try to be careful about discussing it in front of her or having the radio on, but it's difficult. We adults need to be informed and to talk about it. Should we just not bring it up around her at all?

Greenspan: It's best not to overload children with issues that are beyond their comprehension. Adult conversations should be just for adults. Conversations with children about these issues need to be geared to the child's developmental level.

Member: I find it impossible to tell my teenage son that everything will be OK. I am very upset by the war news. How can I calm down so that we can talk about this?

Greenspan: Adults need to have relationships with friends or spouses that help them engage in those four processes described earlier, so that they can calm down, too.

Member: My husband watches the news constantly, so there is no getting away from the war news. Is this unhealthy for us?

Greenspan: If there are children around, it's best to have only limited exposure to the more scary news. If there are just adults, they have to make their own decision.

Member: I am concerned about how the war is being discussed at school. I don't want my child exposed to "rah-rah U.S." How should I deal with this?

Greenspan: Limit exposure through discussions with PTA and parent conferences with teachers and provide the four principles described above.

Moderator: What other kinds of constructive things can children do besides making cards for the military?

Greenspan: Teenagers can engage in debates on the best strategies, and younger children can help raise funds, and also brainstorm as to how they would resolve the conflicts.

Moderator: Do you have particular advice for parents of special needs children?

Greenspan: With special needs children, the same four principles should be implemented, but they should be based on the child's developmental capacities rather than the child's age.

Member: Are there signs of stress in an elementary-age child parents can look for as evidence that war stories are bothering them? They don't always come right out with that kind of information, as I'm sure you know!

Greenspan: The best thing to look for in elementary school children are problems with:

  • Peer relationships
  • School work
  • Family relationships
  • Self-regulation problems in terms of sleeping, eating, or irritability
  • Self-absorption

Any departure from the child's routine functioning can be a sign of stress.

Member: Both myself and my husband serve in the military -- how would you tell two 6-year-olds that Dad and Mom might be going away for awhile?

Greenspan: I would try not to anticipate a scary scenario unless you're getting definitive information that it's likely to happen. Children need at least three to four weeks to prepare for something like this.

Member: We might not be given three or four weeks. What to do then?

Greenspan: I would try to find out as soon as possible, and if it's likely that it may just be a few days rather than a few weeks, and it seems highly likely that this will happen sometime soon, then one needs to being thinking about preparing the children sooner rather than later. They need to be familiar with who will be taking care of them, etc., and there will need to be lots of time spent doing those four principles, including pretend play, to help them understand why mommy and daddy may need to be away for a while.

Member: I'd like to begin putting together a survival box, but I'm afraid it will send the wrong message to my 6-year-old. How do we balance being prepared with being afraid? What can we say to make this a positive thing?

Greenspan: The survival box could be more like an expanded first aid kit, with medicines, band-aids for boo-boos, etc. The child doesn't need to know all of the details of the survival box, especially the ones that are more likely to be scary.

Member: My adult stepson is currently deployed and my teen is very worried about him. When I mention his name she gets upset. It's like she wants to deny that anything is going on. How can I help her accept the reality of her brother being in harm's way?

Greenspan: The key is not to try to get her to accept the reality, but to help her express what's in her mind with the four principles outlined earlier. Lots of time together and opportunities to express whatever is on her mind will allow her to gradually deal with the realities that may be scaring her.

Member: My children are beginning to think that anyone who looks like they're from the Middle East is a terrorist. How do we teach them that this bias is inaccurate?

Greenspan: Have discussions for children who can understand these concepts about how when we're nervous or scared we tend to sometimes oversimplify and categorize people and things in ways that aren't true. Try to give them examples that they can relate to in their own lives where such misclassifications tend to occur.

Moderator: Dr. Greenspan, we are almost out of time. Before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us?

Greenspan: The most important comment is that to ensure in children that there is not a single answer to a question, but a process of enhanced security through more time together, and more opportunities to express and clarify what's on your mind. There's no substitute for the four principles outlined earlier.

Moderator: Our thanks to Dr. Greenspan. For more information, please read The Secure Child by Stanley Greenspan, MD.

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