Thursday, April 10, 2003

Children turn to adults to sort wartime feelings

By Shauna Scott Rhone
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Karen Diehl of Camp Dennison is surprised how much her 5-year-old son, Reed, has picked up about the war and Saddam Hussein.
(Mike Simons photo)
| ZOOM |
During a typical, end-of-day routine recently at the Diehl household in Camp Dennison, Karen Diehl discovered that the war had embedded itself in the mind of her 5-year-old son.

"Last night while I was giving Reed his bath," says the 36-year-old mother, "out of the blue he said that the Iraqi people are not necessarily bad people, they just have a bad leader: Saddam Hussein.

"I agreed, and asked where he'd learned that. He replied Daddy had told him. I didn't know they'd even discussed it. We talked a bit more about how Saddam has hurt people - even his own people.

"He replied, 'Yes, we're going to make him give up or blow him up.'

"While it's a bit disturbing to think a child this young is thinking these things, I think about the children of Iraq who have lived with this. ... I'm surprised how much he is able to understand."

Catholic Social Services continues its "Helping Children With the Threat of War" series with workshops at the following locations:

7 p.m. today at InnerVisions Bookstore in Cherry Grove; 7 p.m. April 22 at Catholic Social Services, 9600 Colerain Ave.; 7 p.m. April 30 at Guardian Angels Church in Mount Washington and 7:30 p.m. May 21 at Mercy HealthPlex Western Hills in Westwood. Free. Advance registration requested, 241-7745.

Children of all ages are struggling to interpret the images and anxieties of the war and the people around them. Even if media exposure is limited by parents, talk from friends or between parents can be picked up by children.

Experts say some are caught up in the confusion and apprehension of the war. They may exhibit feelings of fear, loss of control, anger or acting out in school, insecurity, isolation and difficulty separating fact from fantasy. Other children with parents or relatives overseas may wear certain items nonstop to feel a connection.

What can adults do to help children cope with these unsettling times?

Provide perspective, routine

"Help them realize the war's a long way away," says Kathy Bower, lead psychologist for Cincinnati Public Schools, "and assure them that they're safe."

Bower says information was disseminated to CPS teachers and administrators on how to address the issue with children so "they're trained and briefed" on effective ways of helping kids to deal with it.

"I have noticed a few of the high school kids are following it every day in the newspaper," she says.

Bower says children should be encouraged to talk to someone at school, if they feel they can't talk with their parents.

"An adult should be available to help children talk about fears and anxieties," she says.

She says that as much as possible, encourage children to maintain their normal routine, like school activities and balancing family time with time with friends. Daily stability helps build confidence in their surroundings.

Bower says it's not appropriate for young children to watch a lot of the TV coverage. Grade-school age and younger children, in particular, have difficulty distinguishing between what's on TV and the reality of their lives.

"Some children are fearful right now," says Bower. "A small child may have a fantasy thought based on something they saw or heard actually happening to them."

Symptoms of anxiety

She says the district's team of psychologists is watching for signs of stress among the students, although teachers have reported no aberrant war-related behavior among students.

Some of the signs teachers have been asked to watch for, which parents should also be alert to, include a sense of difficulty with control issues between a parent and children, and a refusal to cooperate or do regular chores. Younger children may exhibit separation anxieties such as refusing to sleep alone or insisting the lights stay on in their bedroom. Another red flag is behavior changes, including more anger and confusion.

"As teachers and administrators, you try to deal with the facts," says Joe Wilmers, a social worker at Washington Park Elementary in Over-the-Rhine. "We tell the kids, 'You are safe here. We will protect you.'

"We want our kids to be safe," says Wilmers, "but we don't want to them to concentrate on it."

Sandy Keiser, a community education specialist for Catholic Social Services, leads a discussion titled "Helping Children With the Threat of War." This CSS-sponsored community workshop offers support to parents dealing with the issue.

Keiser says one of the feelings identified throughout each of the three workshops conducted so far is the feeling of helplessness.

"I talk with them about why we may feel that way," says Keiser. "One of my beliefs is that one of the things we can do is to look inside our hearts to find peace in the world. Look at other ways the military is looking for assistance and reach out to those families involved, like making care packages for the families. And pray for the people involved, in both governments."

Keiser also says adults should be aware of how they are coping in front of the children. What they say in response to a child's concern is very important in helping that child deal with this and future crises.

"There's going to be some anxieties with children in general," she says. "They may be more anxious if they're more aware of what's going on. They need a sense of reassurance. If we know they're going to be safe, we need to let them know.

"Don't listen to their fears and say the feelings are wrong or that they don't feel that way," Keiser says. "Ask them why they're feeling a certain way so they can begin to think about it."

Listen respectfully

Older children, teenagers in particular, may have completely opposing viewpoints compared with their parents'. Respect for all viewpoints must be given, she says.

"If a parent has an opposite opinion, don't say, 'You're wrong' to the teen. Listen to what they're thinking and say, 'We can agree to disagree.' One way to talk about how to handle differences is to discuss your difference of opinion on the war," so both sides can be understood, if not persuaded.

"Don't say, 'We're right, and they're wrong.' That just polarizes the situation further. Talk about what some of the options are for solving the problems. It's more than a black/white issue.

"(Parents) don't have all the answers," says Keiser. "We don't really know, but tell you child, 'I will work with you to find the answer.' "

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