Talking About War to Children in Adoptive Families

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Adopted children may have unique concerns or reactions when thinking about war. Children adopted internationally may have concerns or fantasies about their birth country. Telling a child that "Iraq is far away" may not be comforting to an adopted child from China who knows that China is far away too. Yesterday, my Korean-born son asked about the war and said, "I hope the Americans win. Wait a minute - who are they fighting?" I think if the Americans were fighting Korea (or North Korea) his allegiance might not have been so clear. Certainly hearing disparaging remarks about their country of birth is difficult for older internationally adopted children, who often already feel "different".

War and the threat of war may bring up issues regarding separation for adopted children. Adopted children, particularly those between the ages of 6 and 8, may fear being kidnapped or being separated from their adoptive families. Often children fantasize that their birth parents will come back and get them. Times of uncertainty can kick up these feelings. School aged children are often sensitive to their own feelings, yet are better able to censor themselves than preschool aged kids. In turn, they may not go directly to their parents and talk about what is bothering them. Parents should watch their children for behaviors that are out of the ordinary such as isolating, becoming quiet or anxiously energized, or increased aggression. School aged kids often regress at time of stress. So your 7 year-old son being afraid to sleep in his bed may be more than just a ploy to stay up late. He may be frightened about the war, something he saw on TV, or overheard adults or older kids talking about.

Experts, from Mister Rogers to Alvin Poussaint, a child psychiatrist at the Harvard Medical School, agree that parents should talk to children about war and other difficult topics. Some parents insist that they do not talk about "grown up" subjects to protect their kid. However, not talking about difficult subjects can give children the idea that it is wrong to ask questions, to be scared, or to be curious about what is going on in the world around them. Children need to feel that their homes (and their schools) are safe environments in which they can talk openly about their fears and concerns.

Most importantly, parents need to know their own children and know what is appropriate for them. Questions need to be answered in age appropriate ways, but every five- year old may not need the same answer. Give your child enough information, but try not to overwhelm them. And don't be afraid to admit that you don't know an answer to a question such as "When will the war be over?"
Children solve many of their problems through play. Play with your kids and watch and listen to what they are playing. Read books about tolerance (Martin's Big Words by Doreen Rappaport & Brian Collier, Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss) war (The Color of My Fur by Nanette Brophy, The Butter Battle, by Dr. Seuss) and peace (All The Colors of the Earth by Shelia Hamanaka. It's often easier for children to talk about their fears and concerns through the characters in books.

Children can feel powerful when they generate their own ideas about war or crisis. School aged children may fall back on things they learned in school. For example, when my kindergarten-aged son asked me "What is war?" I told him that sometimes groups of people can't get along and they end up fighting. He responded by saying that they should be like Mr. Luther King (a.k.a. Dr. Martin Luther King) and use words instead of fighting (his concise interpretation of non-violent protest). This type of problem solving can help kids feel safer and more in control.

Limit exposure to television and other media. Pay attention to what your kids are watching and hearing on television. Even school-aged children have trouble understanding what is real and what is not. If children are curious, answer their questions. After September 11th I heard a 5 year-old ask his mother what the firefighters were doing at the World Trade Center. She responded by saying, "This is not for children" and shooing him out of the room. This question came from a boy who loved firefighters and fire stations. A better answer might have been, "The firefighters are there to help people or to put out the fire". Of course the mother in this situation responded the way she did to protect her child and because she was so upset about the situation. It is important that parents be aware of their own reactions to situations like the war. Children pick up the emotional tone in the house and can become anxious when a parent is anxious or scared when a parent is scared. Alternatively, children may pick up the emotion that the parent is expressing, but misattribute it and blame themselves.

Finally, help your children feel safe but don't lie. After September 11th I heard many parents telling their children "that won't happen to us because we don't live in a city, daddy doesn't work in a tall building, etc..." Not only is this not true, it sends mixed messages (e.g., blames the victims for living in a city or working in a tall building). Assure your child that you, and other adults, will work hard to help keep him safe. Older children may take comfort in watching the "helpers" or "heroes" like police or fire personnel who are trying to keep us safe. Spend time doing things that makes your child feel safe like snuggling and reading, visiting a favorite playground, or visiting friends and relatives. Maintaining the daily routine (e.g., bath, books, bed) will help children feel that their house is safe.

Talking to children about topics like war and terrorism is difficult and adoptive parents may face additional challenges. Adoptive parents may find it helpful to talk to other adoptive parents and adoption professionals. Below are some websites that provide advice about talking to children about war and recognizing signs of stress in children.


Suggested Resources for More Information:

Strategies for Parents and Teachers:

Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood: Parents and Teachers:

American Red Cross: Masters of Disaster Downloads

This article first appeared in Adoptalk, the monthly newsletter of the Adoptive Parents Committee, Inc. (, and is reprinted with permission.dren by adoption and a psychologist at the Yale University School of Medicine.
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