Parents in the military
Given the current state of world politics, many more families are exposed to the possibility of separation from loved ones and disquieting news of possible and actual wars. Going to war is the most serious decision made by governments and societies. The impact of such a decision is acutely personal as well as social, affecting many aspects of normal life patterns. Families of deployed military personnel face talking to their children about why they have to leave, where they are going, what they are going to do, risks associated with their assignment and how long they will be away. Emotions and distress may run high in departing parents, as well as those staying behind, facing the temporary loss of an important member of their family.

Civilian parents
Whether or not facing separation from a parent, children of civilians may have generalized concerns and fears. Parents will need to respond to the concerns of children who may be learning about war from media images or reports of ongoing conflicts, or from other sources including friends and school. Children may know someone who has a parent or loved one participating in the conflict, and who are concerned for their safety. The everyday security of family life may be challenged.

The stresses of war
Immediate stressors sometimes seem insurmountable yet families who respond well or learn from difficult times find strength for coping in the future. This appears to be the case for children as well. Temporary loss of an adult, even in the adverse conditions of a war, may be a challenge that improves lifetime coping and adaptive skills if handled in a supportive family atmosphere (Jensen and Shaw, 1996). Parents can teach their children good listening and communication skills, respect and support for differing opinions, and ways to manage fears and anxieties by taking the time to listen, observe, and talk to their children about what is happening around them.

Protecting children from undue fear
As adults, we can learn to talk to our children about war in language that is understandable, does not hide the truth, and is consistent with values we want our children to learn. However, it is important that as adults, we also take the time to discuss and share our own concerns and fears with other adults, loved ones, friends or counselors and not overburden our children. Seeking social support from adults outside of the family is one way to manage our own stress. We want to protect children from unnecessary worries and concerns, and provide them with a sense of security and safety. Researchers have found that parents who are able to handle disturbing, traumatic, or conflicting issues can serve as an active buffer against undue anxiety and distress for the child (Altshuler and Ruble, 1989).

Vulnerability to stress-risk factors
If your child has experienced recent traumatic events in their lives, including disasters or losses of any kind, difficulties in school or with friends, they may be particularly vulnerable to any changes in their sense of safety. Look for signs of increased stress.

Reactions to look for:

  • Increased irritability, difficulties being soothed
  • Tearfulness, sadness, talking about things that frighten them
  • Anger towards people, targeting different ethnic or minority groups
  • Increased agitation and fighting with others
  • Wakefulness at night, changes in sleep patterns
  • More clinging behaviors at home, not wanting to go to school
  • Complaining about physical problems, wanting attention, stomach aches, etc.

How do children understand what war means?

Children will vary in responding to war
Children’s sense of morality grows and changes according to their age and intellectual development. Even from ages 4, 5 and 6, children are developing a strong sense of what is right and wrong and are learning how to solve interpersonal conflicts without violence. The knowledge of war, seeing adults break those rules, can violate and disturb their growing sense of fairness and justice. Most children have concerns and fears about war, but active duty children whose parents are away may react differently than civilian or reserve children. Researchers have found that active duty children tend to worry more and be afraid and sad. Civilian and reservists’ children are more likely to be concerned more about issues of right and wrong (Ryan-Wenger, 2001).

The child’s need for safety and support
During war, the safety and predictability of a child’s social and family worlds may be endangered. Children may have hidden fears that a parent or other loved family member who is deployed may die in the war, and even if no close family member is affected, they may still have a sense of threat to their safety (Ryan-Wenger, 2001). News of combat losses may be broadcast over the media. Younger children should be shielded from this kind of exposure as much as possible, because it will needlessly increase their apprehension of events they can’t understand. Children should also be assured that everything is being done to bring their loved one home safely, and to protect families at home. Adolescents may be better able to comprehend these events, but even they will need assurances and comfort.

War is not a game
Children may play at war, acting out the parts of heroes and villains, and create good outcomes where the “bad guys” are beaten. This does not mean that they are comfortable with or understand real events. Children play best and most creatively when they feel safe. When they feel real threats or danger of losing a parent, their play is more likely to be anxious and sad. Play doesn’t really give them the solutions or answers they may need for their fears and concerns. Children need adults who can address those issues and help them work through their fears.

Pay attention to your child or teenager
Parents should pay attention to how their children are playing. If games end with distressing emotions like sadness, aggression or heightened anxiety, help the child work out more positive solutions. Make time available to your children. Helping them during this time will be more effective than staying glued to hourly news accounts and bulletins during the day. One researcher found that a service member’s 3-year old expressed sadness that her mother watched television instead of paying attention to her. She had to deal with the actual absence of her dad in the war, and the emotional absence of her mom at home (Jensen and Shaw, 1996). Stay close to your child and be observant of behavior that may express stress. Teenagers may deal with anxiety by engaging in risky behavior.

How can adults best address the concerns of children?
Children need a real message about what is happening around them. Above all, they need to be assured that adults will take care of them as well as they can.

Talk about the war when you sense your child has concerns.

  • Take the time and the space to address this serious issue. Remember that communication can only strengthen your family. Be truthful and honest regardless of the age of your child without over-burdening your child. Children are very good at knowing when things or issues are being hidden from them.

Use language that your children can understand

  • Children in different age groups will understand differently. Thinking styles of very young children are concrete and concerned with present everyday life, the safety and happiness of their worlds, the presence or absence of loved ones. Preteens and adolescents will be developing more abstract thinking about ideas and issues and concern for world events.
  • Younger children may be confused by names of people and places that mean little to them. They may need help in forming basic ideas and understanding, and will need help in recognizing foreign names or places. Older children and adolescents will be developing strong opinions they want recognized as their own. They may hear ideas from their peers. These ideas and feelings may be in agreement with their families’ opinions or directly opposed. Nevertheless, their ideas and thoughts need to be heard and respected.

Talk about feelings

  • Encourage your children to freely express their concerns and feelings. All children want to be included in family matters, and they want to be listened to and understood. They have ideas and feelings but may not know how to express them, or how to resolve them. “If war is bad, why is mommy going to war?” “If war is bad, why are we doing it”? “Is killing other people ok?”
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about your feelings, even if you are conflicted or confused. If children know adults are being honest and respectful to them, they will feel safer. Do the best you can, even when you don’t know all the answers.
  • If you are being deployed, take time to talk to your children about your feelings, about what you do on your military job, and how you see your job. Talk about your destination, provide maps, help them know where you will be and arrange for steady and frequent communication.

Make your child feel as secure as possible

  • Make your child feel as secure as possible without distorting the facts. For example, you might say to a very young child, “War is happening in another country, far away. The children in that country must be very afraid right now, and we need to send them our love and caring. But you are safe here and we will take care of you;” or: “Your (dad, mom) will be serving with men and women who will do the best job possible to protect them and bring them home safely”.

Cultivate a family atmosphere where different opinions are respected

  • Cultivate a family atmosphere where different opinions are respected, especially during an actual or potential war. Try to look at and explain the points of view on all sides of a conflict and teach the importance of respect and negotiation. Be sure that they understand that violence is not always the best solution. Whether you are personally for or against war, take the time to explain how democracy works. Explain the importance in the adult world of respecting various points of view, just as in your family, each person wants their opinion to be respected and heard.
  • Explain why you agree or disagree with a decision to go to war in terms your child can understand. For example: “I don’t like war, but it seems this is the best way to keep us safe”; or: “I understand why some people want to fight, but I believe that the only way to peace is negotiation, not violence.”

Provide reassure about the future

  • Be hopeful about the future. “Yes these are hard times, but we are hopeful that people will be able to overcome their differences and live more peacefully in the future.”

Helping children to cope with war

Suggest ways that your child can participate in activities that may decrease their fears and encourage positive and active coping. Children identify with other children they see on the news or in movies from other parts of the world. They feel threatened when those children may be harmed. Emphasize that adults are doing all they can to avoid harmful consequences of war, by pointing out activities of relief organizations like the United Nations and Red Cross can help. Help children get involved in to aid children in war-torn countries in activities like fundraising, toy and clothes drives, and letter writing. Reinforcing the values of caring adults and communities will always be beneficial and help offset the disturbing news of war.

  • Limit exposure to news, especially when news is repetitive and violent.
  • Don’t ignore the subject. The chances are good that your child knows something about there being a war. Do not minimize your child’s concerns or stressors. Many parents would like to ignore the situation because thinking about war makes them feel powerless to protect their children and vulnerable themselves.
  • Respect your child’s timing and ability to cope and manage stress. Children from ages 5 and 6 upward understand some ways of coping (Curry & Russ, 1985). Help your to children develop and enjoy distracting activities. Very young children may want to close their eyes, or just leave and go out and play. Don’t confront children or force them to talk about things when they don’t want to.
  • Suggest positive and creative ways of coping for older children and adolescents. Children of deployed parents can participate in creating scrapbooks, videos, and family media can build family morale for deploying families. For those against the war, participating in school discussions or even demonstrations may be helpful. The opportunity to replace fears and concerns with active coping and participation may have important consequences on children’s outcomes (Baker, 1990).
  • Keep an open door for the presence of the absent parent or loved one (Frank et al, 1981). Make sure communication occurs as often as possible especially around important dates like birthdays, accomplishments, etc. Talk about what it will be like when that person returns and how it would be like if they were here now. This is especially important for younger children who may not understand why their loved one is not here.
  • Seek out strength and support from your community, religious affiliation and schools. This may be a time to strengthen cultural traditions and help you and your child place disturbing events in a larger context. Schools can help by assigning age appropriate readings pertinent to war with classroom discussions (Koubovi, 1982). Keeping a sense of social meaning and cohesiveness may help overall coping with the stressors of war (Jensen & Shaw, 1996).

If stress becomes unmanageable, seek support from family assistance centers and counselors available to your service. They will understand and may direct you to support groups who can help as well. It may be helpful for children to talk in groups with other children whose parents are deployed.

Helpful Links
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Deployment: Preparing a child for separation.

The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues.

Military family readiness (Texas Coop. Ext)

National Center for Children Exposed to Violence at the Yale Study Center.

National Center for PTSD “Terrorist Attacks and Children”.

New York University Child Study Center:


Children’s Fiction:
Myers, W. D. (2002). Patrol, an American soldier in Vietnam. New York: Harper Collins (ages 8-12).

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Children and the news. AACAP Facts for Families #67.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Talking to children about terrorism and war-AACAP Facts for Families #87 at website:

Myers-Walls, Judith A. (2002). Talking to children about terrorism and armed conflict. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues, North Carolina State University.

Myers-Walls, Judith A. (2003). When war is in the news. Purdue Extension.

Books and Articles:
Altshuler, J., & Ruble, D. (1989). Developmental changes in children’s awareness for coping with uncontrollable stress. Child Development, 60, 1337-1349.

Baker, A.M. (1990). The psychological impact of the Intifada on Palestinian children in the occupied West Bank and Gaza: An exploratory study. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 60, 496-505.

Curry, S. & Russ, S. (1985). Identifying coping strategies in children. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 14, 61-69.

Frank, M., Shanfield, S., & Evans, H. (1981). The in-and-out parent: strategies for managing re-entry stress. Military Medicine, 146, 846-49.

Handford, H., Mayes, S., Mattison, R., Humphrey, F., Bagnato, S., Bixler, E., & Kales, J. (1986). Child and parent reaction to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 346-356.

Jensen, P., & Shaw, J. (1996). The effects of war and parental deployment upon children and adolescents. In R.J. Ursano & A.E. Norwood (Eds.), Emotional aftermath of the Persian Gulf War: Veterans, families, communities and nations (pp. 83-110). Wasington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.

Koubovi, D. (1982). Therapeutic teaching of literature during the war and its aftermath. In C.D. Spielberger, I.G. Sarason, & N.A. Milgram (Eds.), Stress and Anxiety, Vol. 8. (pp. 345-350). Washington, DC: Hemisphere.

Ryan-Wenger, N. A. (2001). Impact of the threat of war on children in military families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 71, 236-244.

Ursano, R.J. & Norwood, A.E. (Eds). (1996). Emotional aftermath of the Persian Gulf War: Veterans, families, communities, and nations. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press.

Ilona Pivar, Ph.D.