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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Expert: Talk to Children in Wake of War's Start

LAS CRUCES - As fresh waves of air strikes rock Baghdad and the military campaign in Iraq is unleashed, a New Mexico State University child development specialist stresses that it's critical to talk honestly with children about their fears of war.

Diana DelCampo, a child development specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, stresses that it's critical to talk honestly with children about their fears of war. (03/21/2003) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

Since New Mexico is home to four military bases, many children may understandably be worried about family members or friends in the military, said Diana DelCampo with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.

"Parents must encourage their children to talk about their feelings," she said. "This helps kids deal with difficult issues and gives them the ability to cope and deal with sadness and fear or anxiety."

School-aged children and teens may be the most affected because they understand enough to be concerned, but don't have the maturity to work through the anxiety on their own, DelCampo said. Talking about things that cause anxiety can be comforting for kids as well as adults.

"We have to talk about what bothers us, otherwise all those feelings stay inside and we become a pressure cooker," she said. "Sooner or later, you explode."

DelCampo said parents sometimes worry about what to say to a child. She recommends practicing with another adult or reading materials that address the problem. One resource is CYFERnet (www.cyfernet.org), a Worldwide Web site that provides information for those working with military families, families of National Guard members who have been deployed and families dealing with war and terrorism-related issues.

Among the suggestions from the Web site are to reassure children that adults will do everything they can to keep the children safe, including a description of the safety precautions they're taking. It may also be appropriate to discuss parents' beliefs about the presence of a higher being and the meaning of life and death.

In addition, adults should try to identify the children's concerns that go beyond fear for their own safety, including caring about the well-being of others. And after a stressful event, it's also helpful for both parents and children to take some kind of action to help to put their world back in order. For younger children, this may mean acting out the traumatic events through play and drawing pictures. For adolescents, writing letters or collecting funds for people in need may be helpful.

Talking to children about serious issues that have upset them is an ongoing process. "It's not a one-shot deal," DelCampo said. "Once you talk about something that is bothering a child, whether it's about a loved one in the military or someone dying, it's not over. You have to revisit these issues every now and then."