Many families have concerns about the war in Iraq. Adults have skills that allow them to talk and share their feelings more easily while children may need special attention. With visions of war on the nightly news like "reality TV," many children may have heightened sensitivity to the images, and to others it may not seem quite real. Regardless, families need to know the steps to take in order to cope with emotions in a healthy manner.

How to talk to children about war

What should parents consider before talking to their children about war and terrorism?

  • Pay special attention to remaining calm when talking with children.  Many families here and abroad are directly affected by the war, with either family members or friends fighting in Iraq.  It is important for parents to keep their distress and anxiety under control and reassure children that they are there to help with any difficult emotions the child may be feeling.
  • Children, in general, may have many questions about the war that should be answered simply and directly. Help them understand that our country's leaders are making decisions to ensure safety for all of us. Perhaps enlist the help of children to assist military families in your neighborhood. When children feel they are helping, their levels of stress are decreased.
  • Let children know and understand that war is serious, that it is not a game, and that it is meant to prevent bad things from happening in the future.  Be sure to speak in age appropriate language.

In what type of setting should the discussion take place?

  • Parents should create a safe space for a child to openly talk about feelings of anxiety or fear-for example, at home where they feel secure.
  • Young children should understand war is very serious, but they should not worry about anything happening close to home. Younger children need to be reassured that they are safe and secure at home.
  • Many children, especially those in school, are already aware of the war and its implications. Parents and other adults who come into contact with children throughout the day should monitor rumors and correct misconceptions. 
  • Use the opportunity of increased exposure to news to discuss war and make the discussions educational. Let older children express their views and opinions related to the events. Parents should listen in a respectful manner to the concerns of children, especially adolescents.

How should parents explain the current war?

  • Explain that this is a war against the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein and not against all Iraqi people. Parents should emphasize no person is an "enemy" simply because of their race, religion, culture, or ethnicity, and all people should be treated with respect.
  • When should parents be concerned about their children?
  • Some children are particularly vulnerable to stress and anxiety regarding war, either because they have experienced prior trauma or loss, or they already suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental health needs.
  • Those children who have experienced prior loss may have increased worries about separation. 
  • Children of refugee or immigrant families may also experience increased anxiety related to war. Parents of children of Middle Eastern descent may need to take some extra time to discuss the war's impact on relationships with their peers.
  • Parents and other adults should always keep each child's vulnerabilities in mind when responding to concerns about the war and terrorism.
  • Children's viewing of TV news coverage of the war should be monitored as it can bring about distress and fear in children. If children are watching coverage, parents should be available to answer questions and concerns about what they are seeing.

If young children experience persistent bedwetting, fear of sleeping alone, night terrors, sadness, or eating problems, professional help should be sought. Older children may need a professional if school work begins to suffer, or they become isolated or withdrawn and these symptoms persist. To find a clinical social worker, click here.

During wartime, it is important for all families to stay connected and spend extra time together, even if daily routines are not directly affected. In a democracy, it is probable that adults will have differing views and opinions about war; however, those disagreements should never be discussed in front of children. Parents and other adults should discuss war concerns directly and calmly. 

Parents and families should review emergency plans during this time of heightened national security. Parents should also familiarize themselves with school preparations and plans. 

Overall, try to maintain a normal routine and address children's concerns in a caring and respectful manner. In this uncertain time in our country, many children will have questions and concerns about what is happening. It is important that adults address any concerns or feelings of anxiety that children may feel. Parents and other adults need to realize that children react to stressful situations in ways sometimes different than adults.

National Association of Social Workers, 750 First Street, NE • Suite 800, Washington, DC 20002
NASW Member Services 800-742-4089 Mon-Fri 9:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. ET or
©2017 National Association of Social Workers. All Rights Reserved.
  • Update Your Profile in the Member Center
  • Login