A Parent's Guide to Explain the War

How to answer children's questions about war and violence.

By Colin Allen, published on March 21, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Many parents have had to explain the war in Iraq to their children. Violent images of warfare and an increased risk of terrorism could be damaging to a child. James Garbarino, Ph.D. a child development expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, notes that children may have already learned from previous traumatic experiences, such as the Columbine shootings, the Oklahoma bombing or the Gulf War.

"While America is at war, parents, teachers and other adults face the challenge of talking and listening to children about the difficult topics of violence, revenge, safety, danger, injury and death," says Garbarino. He offers four general guidelines for parents to follow when their kids start asking difficult questions about war.

  • "Children need reassurance that they and their loved ones are safe." Keeping a routine is important. This will to reassure children that they can continue a normal life. Parents should reassure their children that they are safe and they should remain calm.
  • "Children already coping with loss and fear need special reassurance." Kids who have gone through a traumatic divorce or the loss of a loved one may already be emotionally at risk. Adults should make a special effort to comfort these children because they need more support than others.
  • "Children need a chance to ask questions and get information." Even though they are young, it is important for children to receive truthful answers to their questions. Understanding what concerns them about the war will also help parents understand the concerns of their child.
  • "Parents and other adults must guard against becoming preoccupied, anxious and sad." Perhaps most important, parents should remind themselves to set an example. Children will often mirror the response of key adults around them. Parents should guard against becoming too absorbed in the news of the war.

Parents face a difficult challenge in explaining war to their children. For many kids, this will be the first time they will ask themselves about war and why it is happening. Strong support from parents will help many kids feel safer than they would otherwise.