Psychologist urges parents to watch war's effect on kids

March 26, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD and SCOTT BUTKI

When parents watch war coverage on television while their children are around, they should be aware of the effect the images from Iraq might be having on their youngsters, a school psychologist said.

"Pay attention to what the children are seeing and what they're saying," said Paul Wolverton, Washington County Public Schools crisis team leader and school psychologist.

Wolverton said it's appropriate for parents to watch coverage of the war with their children. But he said parents should be alert for signs the youngsters are afraid the war might threaten Washington County, their neighborhoods or their homes.


Children watching the televised war coverage and related events need to talk about what they're seeing in order to understand its magnitude, Wolverton said.

"Discuss war, violence, tyranny, protest, that being in a democracy means that not everyone has to agree," he said.

"Discuss reality versus movies," Wolverton said. "This is a real war and they are shooting real bullets."

Wolverton said that for the most part, middle and high school students will be able to follow news coverage on their own and their questions will be more personal. He said, for example, that they might be thinking about joining the military and might have questions about that.

Wolverton said when elementary school-age children ask questions, they must be given concrete answers. If parents are watching a bombardment, they should explain it on a level their children will understand, he said.

"Tell them that this is not a movie, that those explosions mean that people are getting hurt because people are fighting," he said.

Dr. Jude Boyer-Patrick, child and adolescent psychiatrist for Brook Lane Health Services, said if children ask questions about the war, it's not a bad idea to ask questions back like "why are you asking or where did you hear this or that?"

Boyer-Patrick said children may ask "are we going to be safe?" or "are we going to be attacked?"

"What they are looking for is reassurance from adults," she said.

Unfortunately, Boyer-Patrick said, there is no way to answer that question truthfully because the future is uncertain.

Parents can explain steps that have been taken to ensure their safety, but how detailed they get should depend somewhat on the age of the youngsters, Boyer-Patrick said.

Boyer-Patrick said she has asked children who the president is and what is going on in the world. She said that while they answered "Bush" and mention the war, they don't seem affected by it.

Her guess, and she emphasized it was just a guess, is that they see so much violence on television that seeing a war might not have much impact on them. Unless, of course, they are directly affected - by having a family member in the war, for instance, she said.

Wolverton suggested families think of ways to do something positive, such as collecting canned foods or assisting agencies like the Red Cross with humanitarian efforts. He said doing something to help can be therapeutic.

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