Parents can help children, selves with war stress
March 28, 2003
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The guns, the tanks, the bombs, the wounded and the dead: It’s a version of “Saving Private Ryan” showing on a television near you, 24/7.
So, what’s a parent to do to when young pairs of eyes are glued to the tube, seeing the brutality, absorbing this epic saga about the way adults sometimes treat each other?
And even for adults, what’s the net result of watching war live, reading story after story about war and listening to what seems like each of the 700 embedded journalists interpreting what they see — again, 24/7?
“It does seem like a Hollywood war or something with all the constant TV about it,” said John Webb, 10, a fifth-grade pupil at Ernest J. King Elementary School in Sasebo.
“And I think in another way it’s kind of comical that they’re showing the war with commentary on it, like it’s a tennis match or something.”
John said his classmates just aren’t talking about the war very much and no one seems particularly concerned. He said his teacher, Theresa Wright, has mentioned the war a couple of times but hasn’t dwelled on the topic.
He thinks Americans “are doing the right thing, but I don’t really know,” he said. “But does it scare me? Nope. I mean, it’s like about 50,000 miles away from here or something.
“Think of it this way: There’s Saddam Hussein standing there with a spear, and right behind him are two other guys, and they are his troops, and they have spears, too. Well, here come all these American troops with tanks and big guns. So I think the U.S. forces and the British would just wipe them out easily.
“My opinion … it’s not actually a real war anyway. It’s really just a hunt for Saddam Hussein.”
What is the best approach for parents concerned about their children’s impressions of war’s horrible realties?
“There are lots of ways to go about it, but probably the easiest thing to do is just be observant of any changes in children’s behavior,” recommends Cmdr. Arne Anderson, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Yokosuka Naval Hospital.
Parents should watch out for certain unusual behaviors, including acting out traumatic events, such as airliners crashing into buildings, over and over again, Anderson said. “Also, watch to see if they are being more irritable, have a lot of sleep disturbance, nightmares and nighttime waking, changes in appetite and social withdrawing.”
And limit the amount of television coverage a youngster is allowed to absorb, Anderson said: “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the amount of television viewing of these events should be really limited, especially for young children. It’s just not anything they need to see.
“But obviously, when they start getting to be of school age, everybody’s talking about it, so it’s something they probably will see.”
The key: Anderson says parents should be watching the television with their children, and use the opportunity to talk to them about what’s going on. “If it’s too graphic, or too intense, the parents should just turn it off.”
They also should ask their sons and daughters questions about the war: What have you heard? What do you think is going on? What’s your understanding?
“Talking about what’s going on is always appropriate. If you don’t talk about it, in their imaginations they think it is so horrible that nobody can even talk about it, so it must really be bad. So, at least acknowledging and making the attempt is good,” Anderson said.
It’s also OK for parents to admit they, too, are confused about what’s happening and that they, too, are scared.
“What the parents model, and how the parents respond to the war, will probably have the largest impact. If the parents withdraw, or become very anxious or angry, the kids will probably feed off that,” Anderson said. “The parents need to really make sure they are OK, and that they have someone to talk to about it, and communicate so they can be mentally healthy for their children.”
Living and working in a military environment, as well as living in a country with a culture far different than much of America can have a distinct impact on people as they mentally filter and assess the constant barrage of war news, said Elaine Horrell, Sasebo Fleet and Family Services Center counseling services director.
“I think being on a military base certainly does increase the anxiety and the fearfulness. It’s one thing, being in Kansas … compared to being here, as we consistently say, ‘forward-deployed.’ Ships are out. People we know … husbands, wives, Dad or Mom, may not be home.”
Like Anderson, Horrell said how adults react to the tragedy of war sets a tone. If for no other reason, adults need a healthy perspective to help their children.
“Children can pick up the anxiety of the parent. If a child misunderstands what Mom is talking about … or if she’s talking a lot on the telephone to friends and family back home, and she seems fretful all the while, children pick up the anxiety from what they’re hearing,” Horrell said.
Navy. Lt. Lloyd Davis, a military psychologist at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station’s Navy Branch Medical Clinic, said that as of yet few cases have surfaced of adults displaying unreasonable behavior because of the war.
“And I don’t think we’ll begin to see many cases, either — especially not cases like PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), because we aren’t dealing with people who have actually been there (in war in Iraq),” Davis said.
Nonetheless, it pays to be on the lookout for symptoms, he added.
“Common signs could be the onset of irritability, changes in sleep patterns, lack of concentration, more mistakes appearing at work … things like uncharacteristically not showing up for morning PT. Things like that,” Davis explained.
“It’s when these signs begin to affect a person’s life … in their relationships, and in their families and in their work … they should seek professional counseling. Most all military bases have psychologists available, or at the very least, they have counselors of some type,” he said.
Davis conducts stress debriefings for Iwakuni servicemembers, and he likes to use two acronyms to spotlight the things one should and should not do pertaining to stress-related problems.
“Things people should do I call REST, which is relax, exercise, sleep and talk about it. Talking about it may be the most important for people who are having problems dealing with the war. For things to avoid, I use the term BAR.
“The ‘B’ is for big decisions, as in don’t make any big decisions during times emotional unrest. The ‘A’ is to avoid alcohol, and actually the abuse of anything, even caffeine and overindulging in comfort food. The ‘R’ stands for routine, as in don’t change your routine,” Davis advised.
Know when to seek help
Facing a war and the continuing threat of terrorism, Americans are experiencing many powerful emotions, mental health experts report. Everyone reacts differently and each person has his or her own tolerance level for worrisome conditions.
Here are some suggestions from the National Mental Health Association about what are common responses in such times and when to consider counseling.
Some feelings, though possibly unpleasant, are considered common when people experience particularly trying times:
• Disbelief and shock.• Fear and anxiety about the future.• Disorientation — difficulty making decisions or concentrating.• Inability to focus.• Apathy and emotional numbing.• Irritability and anger.• Sadness and depression.• Feeling powerless.• Extreme changes in eating patterns — loss of appetite or overeating.
Some signs can indicate you could benefit from the new coping strategies counseling might provide. These include:
• Nightmares and reoccurring thoughts about war or a traumatic event.• Being unable to stop thinking about the war or a traumatic event.• Avoiding thoughts, feelings or conversations that remind you of a traumatic event.• Avoiding places or people that remind you of a traumatic event.• Having a sense of a foreshortened future.• Continued difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.• Feeling jumpy or easily startled.• Being overly concerned about safety.• Feeling guilty, worthless or hopeless.• Having thoughts of death or suicide.
Some helpful techniques for dealing with challenging times include:
• Talk about it.• Take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest and exercise, avoid excessive drinking and eat properly. Avoid foods that are high in calories and fat.• Limit exposure to images of the war.• Do something positive. Give blood, prepare “care packages” for people in the military, write letters to servicemembers.• Ask for help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Talk with a trusted relative, friend or spiritual advisor. If you want professional help, call your base medical facility or family and community services organization.
More information is available on the National Mental Health Association Web site: www.nmha.org