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How to Talk to Children About War: An Age-By-Age Guide

With tensions in the Middle East increasing, parents might need to explain war to their children

This Dec. 29, 2019, file photo taken from a helicopter shows Ain al-Asad air base in the western Anbar desert, Iraq.
AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, File

As news spread that Iran launched missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq, many worried that the United States had potentially entered into war. While adults grapple with the overwhelming news, children, too, might hear about it and feel frightened.

It’s natural to want to protect children from scary things, but parents need to be ready to talk with their children about war. Parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa says most parents don’t have to talk to young children about it unless they ask — or have a family member or friend in the military.

“It is better to engage with children age 8 or older,” the parenting expert told TODAY Parents. “But, if they might hear about it anywhere else you might want to talk about it at any age.”

She says that parents need to work through a few things before they chat with their children.

“Figure out what you want them to learn. What’s the one message you want to send along with whatever facts,” she said.

Messages could include: “The war is far away and we’re safe. Or “Politics really matter in people’s lives and we have to vote,” for example.

Gilboa says parents should also work through their feelings before talking with their children.

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“You can't be a place for your child to process your emotions,” she explained. “A conversation with your child about a big scary somewhat incomprehensible topic is not the right place to work out your emotions.”

She also reminds parents they don’t have to have all the answers. Thinking through a problem together helps children learn to navigate ambiguous feelings.

“It gives them practice thinking about big hard things,” Gilboa said.

She shares advice on how to talk to children age-by-age about war.

Preschool to age 8

For younger children, Gilboa recommends giving them factual information with a personal value. It should be short and clear. Messages could include: “There’s a war far away where there are U.S. soldiers. We’re safe but it is a big deal.”

“If they ask you a follow up question, state the answer simply and reinforce (your value),” she said.

So if a child asks, “Why are they fighting?” Parents can say, “They’re fighting over who should be in charge but it is far away from here.”

It’s essential for parents to reassure their children and keep an open dialogue.

“It is really helpful to say to your child, ‘When you have more feelings come talk to me.’ Not if, when. When opens the door wider than if,” she said.

Age 8 to 10

Again, Gilboa urges parents to keep the message simple and share a lesson about what’s important to your family.

“It might feel that in your life or your child’s life that the message is about safety or being a patriot,” she said.

When children surprise parents with queries about war, it’s OK if they aren’t ready to address it. They need to acknowledge it and then return to it later. Saying something like “I’m the right person to ask" helps children understand parents are a trusted source.

“Give yourself breathing room to decide what the lesson is,” she explained.

While a child asking about war might catch parents off guard, it provides them with an advantage: They know what worries their children.

“You know what the answers they are looking for are,” she said.

Middle school

Parents should start by asking their middle school children what they know about war. Then they can address their children’s specific questions.

“We tend to assume that our kids feel a particular way and we're wrong a surprising amount of time,” she said. “It lets them start where they are instead of where we think they are.”

Asking questions also allows parents to nudge their children toward facts.

“We can correct any misconceptions,” Gilboa said.

If parents don’t know the answer to something, they should look it up with their children. It offers the added benefit of showing children where to find reliable information and how to think critically about sources.

“When you watch them learn, you get to be a part of the process and part of the conversation,” she explained.

High school students

Parents should start by asking their teens what they know about the current war. Parents should share as much factual information as they can with their values. But then they should ask them how they feel about it and where they get their information.

“Teenagers do want to know what their adults think about it and they are really influenced by it,” Gilboa said. “But they’re also influenced by other people.”

Parents can help their teens “to think critically about where they get their information and their beliefs from.”

For many teens, a potential war means they may worry about being drafted. Gilboa said experts seem to believe the chance of an involuntary draft is very low and parents can reassure them by noting there wasn’t a draft after 9-11, for example. But they also might want to talk to their children about what could happen.

“Ask your teen, 'If there were a draft, in what way would [you] be comfortable serving our country?'” she said.

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