Need to feel safe
The first thing to address is the issue of safety. Even if the war isn’t happening in our country, there is a global threat and children have access to news and its impact, to the hyperboles that politicians make and what the world around them is talking about.
The first question children then have is what will happen to us and it is important to address that fear, to tell them that we are safe. And that while there are stories of aggression and disruption, there are also people and organisations coming together to help us stay safe. And that together we will make the space safe for you. Some older children may understand the situation better, that prices may go up and travel maybe restricted in some parts of the world, but by and large, the world will function as is, that things will be stable and steady. And it is important for children to hear this.
Importance of dialogue
One can draw parallels between the big war out there and the conflicts in our own country. We can bring to the table conversations on what happens when people are polarised and they have differences. If we do not open up to the idea of dialogue and listen to each other, it can lead to friction. When the “othering” happens and we see people as separate from us and that they are going to harm us or take things away from us, that’s when anger and hostility begin. Such a conversation has to happen at different levels, depending on how old your child is.
Need for empathy
Many stories of the war are disturbing, and it’s prudent to shield children from them, but there are also stories of compassion and kinship. There are people standing up for others, neighbouring countries are opening their doors to the displaced and such stories can be metaphors for the values we want to highlight to the children.
It can become an opportunity to talk about what works through human interactions and what doesn’t, and show us what is important and what is not. We need to tell them that compassion, cooperation, and collaboration are more important values than competition. To encourage empathy in a child, you can also get them to write a card or a letter or make a donation for displaced families.
There are children who are curious about wars, some have read up enough to know the intricacies of previous world wars. But sometimes, they can also unsettle us with their statements, like why Adolf Hitler was right or why Vladimir Putin is doing the right thing.
In such cases, it’s important not to react with judgement, then they will simply shut up and not talk. Or sometimes it can lead to an argument, which finally goes nowhere. Instead ask him/her why do you think that and what can be an alternative? Why do you feel that way?
Rather than taking a polarised stance, leave it open ended. What happens when you take an extreme position is that there is no scope for dialogue. Our children then pick up on our anxieties and it becomes their opinion. So be mindful about responding to questions with curiosity and openness. It doesn’t mean you don’t make your point, but do it in a way that is non-confrontational.
(Dr Amit Sen is a child and adolescent psychiatrist working in Delhi. He has served in the Army Medical Corps from December 1982 to January 1988)
(This column by different experts will appear every fortnight)