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Talking With Children About War and Violence In the World

Educators for Social Responsibility has prepared this guide for adults who are concerned about how to communicate with young people about difficult issues in the world.
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11. I have strong opinions about what is happening. Is it useful to share my beliefs with children?
Because the opinions of adults in a child's life carry such weight (especially with younger children), we recommend that you focus on what the child is thinking and feeling. Stating an opinion, especially in the early stages of discussion, can block open communication by preventing children, who might hold different opinions, from openly sharing and discussing them for fear of disapproval. It might also shift a child's attention to thinking that they may need to take care of your feelings rather than exploring their own. Since most older children are aware of their parents' opinions anyway, it is perhaps more important to help children to think critically about many points of view and arrive at their own conclusions.

However, it is important to communicate to children the value of hearing other points of view and respecting the people who hold them. Helping children understand that the issue of violence, for example, is a complex one allows them to feel that their opinions can make a contribution to our understanding of the issue. We recommend that you stress the importance of their examining a variety of points of view, as well as your own, and their learning to appreciate what each has to offer.

Difference of opinion can be very healthy, and something that both adults and children can learn from. Often, however, these differences degenerate into unproductive arguments where both the adult and child become entrenched in their positions. Constructive dialogue begins with a good deal of listening and a sincere effort to understand both what the other person is saying and the beliefs that underly their point of view. It is important to avoid statements that categorically dismiss an adolescent's opinions such as, "When you grow up you'll understand." or, "You don't know what you're talking about." Instead, restate what the child has said to make sure you understand it. Listen carefully to the child's point of view, and ask questions to help him or her clarify it. Rather than immediately countering statements with which you disagree, you can ask questions that can help you better understand the child's perspective.

There are respectful ways of disagreeing which you can model by stating your disagreements in the form of, "I experience things differently. I think that..." rather than telling the child that he or she is wrong. The goal, after all, is not to dictate opinions to children, but rather to help them engage in critical thinking and to make their own reasoned decisions about controversial issues. Finally, help your child understand that a person's opinions can change, and that a decision reached today might be different tomorrow with the addition of new ideas and information.

12. How can I talk with children if I feel that my own grasp of the facts and issues is inadequate?
Fortunately, we don't need to be experts or know all the facts about something in order to listen to children. The questions of very young children seldom require complicated technical answers. When older children ask for information we don't have, it is fine to say something like, "That's an interesting question, and I don't know the answer. How can we find that out together?" The process of figuring out where to get the information, and going through the steps to obtain it, can be a powerfully reassuring experience for children, especially when a trusted adult participates with them. In a small but significant way, this experience can demonstrate for young people that there are orderly ways to go about solving problems and that the world is not beyond our understanding. If a child's questions don't lend themselves to this kind of research process, it is equally effective to say something like, "I don't know the answer to that and I'm not sure anyone does. I do know, however, that many thoughtful people throughout the world are working hard to understand this issue."

13. How can I reassure and comfort children when I honestly don't feel hopeful myself?
On one hand, it is certainly appropriate for adults to acknowledge that they, too, are concerned about the state of the world. On the other hand, we must not impose our feelings on children. If you really believe that your own concerns may be overwhelming to the children in your life, then you might seek out an adult support system. This might be a group of other adults with similar feelings who need to share and discuss their concerns and questions. If a support group isn't practical, then you might find a competent, caring individual to talk with to sort out your feelings. It then becomes easier to offer genuine help to children.

14. What can I say that is both comforting and reassuring?
Just by listening to children you are providing reassurance. By your ability to listen calmly, even to concerns which might seem unrealistic, you communicate that their fears are not too frightening to deal with. By trying to understand children, you communicate that their feelings are neither abnormal nor silly, and you communicate the reassurance that they are not alone with their concerns.

You can also help children find a way to step out of their position of powerlessness. You can tell them honestly that their concerns are quite healthy because people's concern is the first step toward doing something to make the world safer. The most effective antidote to anxiety, fear, or powerlessness is action. Engage them in a conversation about the way in which their school is working to make it a more peaceful place and explore ways in which they might be an active part of the effort to create a peaceful community in their school, home, and neighborhood. You can also engage them in writing letters to members of Congress, the local newspaper, or governments around the world to express their feelings and views on the war.

15. What if a child is fascinated or excited by a violent or tragic event?
Due to the way these events are often portrayed in the media, it is natural for some children to be fascinated and, at times, excited by them. Preadolescent boys, especially, may have a fascination with some of the images of violence.

The reporting of violence sometimes takes on the tone of a sports event, and the language used in public discourse is often either highly sanitised or inflammatory. Young children are often drawn to things that look exciting, powerful, and dramatic. As they do, they focus on what they see, without necessarily focusing on how it may affect themselves or others. As a result, some children may not be sensitive to the human suffering created by wars, or the sadness and anxiety other children experience as a result. We need to help students explore multiple perspectives about issues--including ones that may not be broadcast as frequently.

Some students, encouraged by video-game-like footage they may see on TV, might have difficulty distinguishing between the fantasy of video games and the realities of war. We can ask students to compare and contrast violence as portrayed in some video games and the hardships of war. If students are having trouble understanding these distinctions, you might want to share age-appropriate poetry, short stories, novels, artworks, songs, or autobiographies which depict war in greater complexity.

There are age appropriate ways to help children see the human and environmental consequences for all sides, as well as the complexity of the issues involved. Inquiry-based lessons and media-literacy approaches are especially useful when teaching these skills (see also question #22).

16. What if children seem to have excessive fears? (nightmares, obsession with violence and weapons, etc.)
Deep feelings of sadness, anxiety, and confusion are not atypical for children trying to come to terms with death, suffering, and the reasons that people resort to violence. Children with "extreme" concerns need to be listened to and understood the same way that children with "normal" concerns do. It may be more difficult for the adults closest to them to help them put their strong feelings into words. When children are troubled and their parents and teachers have difficulty helping them sort the trouble out--no matter what the issue--it may make sense to seek the help of a mental health practitioner. The problem may be as simple as untangling a particularly frightening bit of misinformation. But, if you have doubts about what a child's fears mean, or how to help the child deal with them, we strongly encourage you to consult a counselor or other professional trained in this area.

You will want to watch for signs of significant increases in anxiety, distraction, fear, or hopelessness, and know where you can go to access additional mental health services in your area. Support groups are often formed for adults and children whose family members are involved in a crisis. Sometimes one crisis is a trigger that reminds children of another crisis closer to home. Your school may need to form a group with children who are most at-risk for developing post-traumatic stress symptomology. Again, there are many professionals who may be available to help parents, teachers, and children.

17. How can I reassure children and help allay their fears?
Many children might be afraid that the Iraqi government, or terrorists, will attack the U.S. These fears can be magnified for those children who: hear or watch a lot of news coverage about these issues; are most directly impacted by the attacks of September 11, 2001; live near military bases; or have relatives in the military or emergency service professions. If students raise these fears, we can tell students that there are many people working to keep our schools and neighborhoods safe.

If children ask questions that reflect this fear or if their behavior suggests that they have such concerns (e.g., they get anxious when a plane flies overhead), it is important to give them a direct and reassuring answer. How specific you make your reply will depend on the child's age. If younger children in the U.S. ask, "Will Iraq bomb our neighborhood?" we can tell students there are many people working to keep our schools and neighborhoods safe, and that the Iraqi military does not have planes that can reach us in the U.S. If older students ask about whether terrorists will attack, we can acknowledge that the threat of terrorist attacks here is a scary possibility, while explaining that the chances of our area being attacked are low. Again, we can reiterate that many adults are working to prevent such attacks from happening. Once we give our answer, we should wait to see how the children respond in order to decide if we have said enough or if more information is needed.

For many children, fear and anxiety will come and go, but for those children who have family and close friends involved in or living near the conflict, the anxiety and fear are more constant. There are some special things that can be done to help these students. First, we need to identify who they are and inform guidance counselors of their potential needs. Second, it may be helpful to have a support group for these students so that they can talk about their specific concerns. Third, in classroom conversations about the war, we need to pay special attention to affirming the courage and commitment of their relatives and separating that from domestic differences of opinion about the issues related to the war. Students who are most directly affected can be especially valuable contributors to class conversations, adding an important human dimension to the conflict.

Entire classes may want to write or make pictures for the relatives of students who are most directly affected, and this can help those students feel supported by their classmates. For students with relatives in the military, you can find additional ideas about how to keep parents, schools, and children in touch with each other at the website of the Military Child Education Coalition.

For students whose relatives are in danger, there is no easy way to allay their fears. However, it is important to maintain the normal family or classroom routines and schedules as much as possible, and to listen in the supportive ways we've suggested in this guide.

Validate children's feelings and keep the channels of communication open. It will also help to provide reassurance through positive and hopeful comments such as, "People are working very hard to help all the families involved in these events." Finally, when you are talking with children, give them known details about the whereabouts and activities of the friend or family member. Continue to make the person real and present for them by talking about him or her.

Some children may have to cope with the death of their relative or friend. It is appropriate for the school and the class to grieve with the student in both formal and informal ways. If this occurs it would be helpful to find people in your area who are experienced in dealing with grief to help the school respond with sensitivity and care. For more ideas about dealing with crises in schools, please see the website of the Crisis Management Insititute, the About Our Kids site at NYU, and the multi-lingual materials available through the website of the National Association of School Psychologists. We have links to additional material on our own site as well.

18. How do I deal with the rage some young people express towards the perpetrators of violence?
Feeling angry is one very appropriate response when reacting to horrible events, and it's important to acknowledge and recognise those feelings. Often, there are many other feelings hiding beneath the surface of what can be seen as an "anger iceberg," including fear, disgust, shock, sadness, helplessness, guilt, and despair. It can be helpful to explore with students what they are feeling by guessing what's important to them, asking, for example, "Are you saying you want to be able to do something for people who were injured?" Remember to ask open-ended questions, such as, "What is upsetting you the most?"

19. I'm concerned about the articulation of revenge and retaliation fantasies. How can I respond?
During wars some students become focused on the excitement of, "smashing the enemy," and begin to make revenge a more prominent theme of their writing, drawing, and play. Acknowledge that many people, including many adults, share those thoughts. When children see adults, particularly adults in power, modeling these kinds of responses, they often follow suit. Empathizing with the underlying feelings and helping students clarify what is important to them (that justice be done, for example) can be helpful.

It's also important to explore the consequences of retaliation. We can help young people discuss what they perceive happening after someone retaliates in interpersonal conflicts. Often, the other person gets angrier and chooses to strike back, escalating the situation. We can ask students how they usually respond when someone does something mean to them.

It's confusing to some students that some adults tell them to, "use their words," in order to prevent fights, while governmental leaders sometimes resort to war. Responding to observations like these can be difficult, and we might respond differently depending on our own point of view and the age of the child. You might explain that many adults are working to prevent conflicts from escalating into war. You could mention that some adults agree and some disagree with governments' decisions to wage war. Many adults believe that some international conflicts require the use of military force. Whether analyzing issues at the personal or global level, we can engage students in discussions about ethical questions such as, "What measures should we take to prevent or resolve serious conflicts and should we use violent force or nonviolent action to achieve our goals?"

Remind students that many people around the world are working to see that justice is done. However, people have many different perspectives about how best to make this happen.

20. I am hearing an increase in prejudiced comments. How can I intervene?
Point out that rumors and misinformation often emerge during a crisis. Rumors which falsely generalise about the behavior of an entire group of people can be particularly dangerous. Talking with students about the damage rumors cause in their own lives can help students understand the need to identify rumors for what they are.

Parents and schools can help prevent the emergence of stereotyping and the victimization of any group. Children who share a culture with the people of the Middle East, children whose parents come from countries whose governments are currently unpopular with the U.S. government (such as France), and children whose points of view diverge from that of the majority, may be at increased risk of becoming the targets of taunts, bullying, and harassment.

For example, according to the FBI, reported hate crimes against Arab-Americans in 2001 in the U.S. increased 1600% (increased sixteen times) over the number reported in 2000, while other hate crimes continued at a high rate. The National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium reported that 27% of hate crimes reported to them after September 11, 2001 were committed in schools.

In times of war, some people dehumanise the residents of countries whose governments are in conflict with their government. Sometimes this extends to people who came from, or whose relatives emigrated from, that region. The internment of Japanese-Americans in the U.S. during World War II is one example of this phenomenon. One way we might present this to students would be by sharing an analogy. If one student in a school steals a cookie, it would be a mistake to call everyone who goes to that school a thief. Similarly, we can't blame everyone who lives in a region for crimes allegedly committed by a few individuals.

Because some people have little knowledge of, or exposure to, Southwest Asia and Northern Africa, other than stereotypes, they may inappropriately lump together the diverse cultures of the Middle East. Sometimes, especially when responding with fear and anger to the actions of some individuals or governments in a region, people make suggestions which exhibit a failure to acknowledge that human suffering and loss of life is involved, such as, "We should blow the whole country off the map," or, "Let's just wipe them all out." We can acknowledge the feelings which motivate these statements, while striving to complicate the students' understanding of the ethical issues involved.

We can help children avoid creating a one-dimensional image of any group of people as simply, "the enemy." One way to prevent stereotypical thinking is to teach about the processes by which prejudices develop. When we clearly communicate our rejection of ethnic and religious slurs, taunts, jokes, and physical abuse, we reinforce and model how to interrupt prejudice and promote respect for all.

Schools can help young people understand the potential for abuse, and that harassment is not acceptable or legal. This may mean directly intervening to stop bullying or harassment. Even more important, schools can demonstrate and reinforce ways that people can listen to each other, learn from each other, support each other, and respect each other's backgrounds and perspectives.

After September 11, 2001, some school officials, partially out of fear for the safety of students, asked Muslim girls to remove their hijabs (head scarves) and Sikh boys to remove their turbans, thus potentially violating their civil rights. Some parents, afraid for their children's safety, made the same request. While this may seem to be an easy solution, it is more important for schools to send a strong message to all students that differences in culture and religion are welcomed in the school. It's the responsibility of everyone in the school community to create a safe learning environment for each other by speaking up if anyone is being targeted by bigotry. When teachers address these issues and there are only a few members of a particular group in the room, it's important to avoid singling out students in the minority, so the lessons can be framed in terms, for example, of respecting everyone's religious practices and beliefs. ESR also offers a range of lessons to help schools counter bias and discrimination.

By helping young people understand the human and environmental consequences of wars and violent conflicts for all sides, and the complexity of various issues, young people can become more sensitive to other people's feelings and points of view. We can help them recognise that people in and from the Middle East are human beings who, like people all over the world, experience joy and pain, have differences of opinion, and deserve respect. Children can also begin to learn about the complexities of Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Baha'i, and Christian history as well as about the many cultures of the Middle East in general.
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