StorkNet presents . . . Celia Straus'
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In Wartime: Opportunities
For Families To Find Common Ground
by Celia Straus
Now that the new television series "Iraqi Real World" has been transformed into "Iraqi Real War," we are beginning to focus on how war is affecting our families and how we should respond. Michiko Kakutani writes in a New York Times article entitled "Shock, Awe and Razzmatazz in the Sequel" that "the Pentagon and television news coverage are blurring the lines between movies and real life as never before, turning us into 24 hour couch voyeurs." While we remind ourselves and our children that the bombs over Baghdad are not special effects, and soldiers in battle photographed in the green glow of night vision are not the same as a neighborhood conflict on local cable, the media undermines our efforts. Kakutani says the lines between the real and the fictional are so blurred that newscasters repeatedly remind us how scenes of violence, carnage and death are brought to us live. "In this case, reminders are meant to give the audience a racy frisson of danger, rather than a sober appreciation of the solemn business of war."
Whatever our politics concerning Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is our responsibility as parents to manage the impact (of what now appears to be months) of the war on our children. We know to monitor the television, radio and, yes, newspaper images our children are exposed to, particularly if they are young. We know to listen carefully to what our children have to say about the war, and to ask open-ended questions to learn about how they feel. We know to provide answers that are appropriate for our child's age. We do not over-explain, but we clear up misconceptions like the fear many young children have that they, too, are not safe from American bombs. We know to look for signs of stress such as nightmares or aggressive behavior. We know the importance of constantly reassuring them that the family is and will be okay.
These wise strategies are crucial to the mental and emotional health of our families. They help our children cope and move on. Yet we can do more to foster the resiliency these troubled times demand of us and of our families. To begin with, we can show compassion. By compassion I mean a deep caring in which we demonstrate our ability to be virtually "inside our children's skin." By compassion I mean our immediate response to the needs and fears of our children so that we forget our own agendas and are touched by the pain they are feeling. Compassion demands that we wake up to what is going on around us, not in Iraq, but right here, right now. Generally we go through life in a daze, closed off from the miseries of our world. Then the war in Iraq is, indeed, like a movie. Through compassion we not only face the facts of war for ourselves, but we help our children to do so as well, in ways that demonstrate our understanding and love for our child at that moment. During the past week, one friend of mine simply held her six year old for longer periods of time while another returned home early from his law firm each night so he could pick up his ninth grader from baseball practice. Coming upon her ten year old daughter and a friend near tears over televised images of suffering, a colleague, who works out of the home, instantly cut her conference call short and whisked both girls out for pizza. Reaching out with compassion often occurs spontaneously.
We can also hone our communication skills, particularly the art of listening. Listening is absolutely all that it is cracked up to be. The number of teenagers who Email me about how no one listens to them is in the hundreds. "When I try and talk to her, she can't sit still and just listen." "No one in my family listens to anyone." "I am scared I am going to die but I can't tell anyone." I wish my mom would listen to what I have to say instead of always jumping in with her opinion."" We often hurry to provide our children with our own opinions and observations about the war or try to prove to our children that we know how they feel or think about it. "You must be as outraged as I am about.." "I know you must feel this war is the only thing people care about." "Don't be afraid of what is going on far away."
However, during a crisis we have opportunities to experience the event and each other as equals. When events are frightening and unpredictable, clear two-way communication tells your children that you are together with them. Listening attentively and responding with emotional honesty sets a pattern that will last long after this war is over. As difficult as this time is for all of us, we need to remember that we can live a far more encompassing life if we connect with those whom we treat separate from ourselves starting with our children. Connectedness fosters a sense of security, which is essential for children in times of crisis. In article posted on AOL's parenting site entitled "Helping Kids Cope With Fear and Loss" Dr. Salomon Grimberg points out that, "Only security will, more likely than not, provide an internal sense of stability that children will carry within them the rest of their lives."
Resiliency also requires courage - the ability to draw upon our inner strengths and trust that they will sustain us during a crisis. The most courageous act is living what is real. Because our children's responses to the war are influenced by how we respond, the best way to teach them about their own courage is to role model ours. In The Mother Daughter Circle, a number of moms Emailed me about how they have shown courage in the face of adversity. Here is one entry:
"I try to show my daughter that the way to live life is with courage. I try to face life head on. When I lost my job, I tried to be honest about my fears. I also talked about my faith that we would be okay. She remembers that even though it happened three years ago."
It takes inner strength to embrace reality as it is. But only by experiencing reality as it really is and not as we think or feel it is, can we act with courage. Often reality is unknowable. I find myself saying, "I don't know" when answering my daughters questions about this war. As Dr. Grimberg says, "Life holds many mysteries, and children need to learn early that we do not have answers for many questions." During wartime we have an opportunity to learn to live with courage about the unknown, and teach our children to do the same. However, the unknown offers beauty as well as ugliness, extraordinary joy as well as fear, new life as well as death. Being thankful for the beauty and joy of life during wartime and teaching our children to be thankful as well may be our greatest act of courage yet.
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