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Allaying fears of kids with parents in military

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has affected many families in ways other than having to pay more for gasoline. Psychologists and psychiatrists are beginning to see changes in children's play and artwork, which are usually good reflections of their unspoken hopes and fears.

Most children first show their concerns through changes in their behavior. Their words come later.

Dr. Barry Garfinkel, the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and many of his colleagues are beginning to see not only children who have parents, older siblings and other relatives in the military, but also the children of reservists who may be called to active duty.

"Even mild-mannered children are becoming more aggressive in their play," Garfinkel said.

"It's a way for them to get a handle on their angry feelings."

One psychologist described how a 9-year-old girl drew a picture of her father, who is in the medical corps of the Naval Reserve, standing alone on the deck of a ship and firing a gun.

It was her way of bringing her fears, both legitimate and unrealistic, out in the open. Her father might soon be away, alone and in danger.

"Children's imaginations can run wild with this situation, especially if they have a parent involved," Garfinkel said.

"The children I've talked to are imagining that their parents are in situations worthy of Indiana Jones. They talk about booby traps and terribly complex predicaments."

Although most American preschoolers will pay little attention to what is happening in the Middle East, those who have parents or other close relatives involved in the military action may distort events in ways that fit their limited knowledge of the world.

They may envision Saudi Arabia as only a few blocks or a few miles away, and imagine war spreading to their neighborhood.

They may be especially frightened if they are being raised by a single parent who is in the military or if the parents are married and the mother is in the reserves or on active duty.

"You can expect young children to ask questions that adults would never ask," said Dr. Gerald P. Koocher, the chief psychologist at Children's Hospital in Boston.

"If their father's overseas they'll want to know: "Will my dad come home to visit this weekend? Can we go see him?'


Children sometimes ascribe mystical powers to their thoughts and wishes. Because of this, young children may feel an inordinate amount of responsibility for their family's health and safety.

For example, a psychologist who studies how children respond to the threat of nuclear war recalled a 9-year-old boy who cried himself to sleep at night.

"He was afraid that he and his family were going to be killed by an atomic bomb, but he didn't want to talk about it for fear that talking might make it happen," said the psychologist,Dr. Milton Schwebel, a professor emeritus in the graduate school of applied and professional psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Dr. Antoinette Saunders, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Capable Kid Center, a child guidance clinic in Evanston, Ill., said: "Children below the age of 11 may become clingy and may not want to leave home. They may become more moody or withdrawn."

They may also withdraw because they are overwhelmed by their fears about what is happening.

Just as their limited knowledge of geography will make some children worry that their homes may soon be bombed, their views of the day-to-day life of a soldier may be very distorted.

"Imagination is much worse than reality for children," Garfinkel said.

"The children I've seen are already talking about poison gas and chemical warfare, but they're not thinking about the heat and the boredom."

Talking may ease deep-seated worries

New York Times

Parents can do several things to help their children handle their concerns about events in Iraq and Saudi Arabia:

Encourage your children to talk about their fears.

The simplest way to do that is to start the conversations yourself.

Children may not ask the questions that are bothering them the most: Are they safe? Will they be abandoned or separated from their family? Are they powerless? It is important to answer those questions even if they are never asked.

Use analogies and measures that a child can understand.

With young children, use terms from their everyday lives in discussions of geography or the subtleties of world economics and international politics.

The idea that a relative in the military is 7,000 miles away may make more sense to children if you describe it as 10 times the distance to their grandmother's house.

"Ask your child what she might do if a child next door took something of hers," said Dr. Gerald P. Koocher, the chief psychologist at Children's Hospital in Boston. That will allow you to discuss how there can be different solutions to a problem.

Remember that the primary concern of younger children is being separated from their parents.

If their father has been shipped overseas, for example, it is important to reassure them repeatedly that he will be coming home. They need to know that even though Daddy is going away, we'll write letters to him, and he'll return.

If one parent is away, expect your children to withdraw for a while.

There is nothing unusual about this. It is simply their way of coming to terms with what is happening. The next stage is what many parents find confusing.

"Two or three months later, that withdrawal can turn to indifference and emotional numbing," said Dr. Barry Garfinkel, the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "Children may react very negatively when the missing parent's name is brought up."

That anger is usually more in response to their feelings of abandonment than to anything specific in the parent.

When the parent comes back home, do not expect everything to return to normal immediately.

"The children may need some time to discharge the pent-up anger they've felt, so that they can respond with less ambivalence," Garfinkel said.