War has entered the consciousness of America and is now on the minds of people young and old. How do we talk to our children about war in ways that make sense? How do we empower our children and give them hope?

If your children are 7 and under, first find out what they already know. Some children are confused and misinformed. They might have heard things from their friends or have caught snippets of information on TV. In the simplest way, try to clear up their misconceptions and answer their questions without giving them any more information than you have to.

Even if your child doesn't bring up the issue of war, check in with him anyway. You'd be surprised at what even young children are picking up from their friends. For example a mother recently e-mailed me saying that her 4-year-old daughter asked if the war would be coming to their house. The father of a 6-year-old said his daughter was worried about the war because she didn't know how to be a soldier.

Open the conversation, and then listen with compassion. Offer reassurances as best as you can, and give as many extra hugs and kisses as possible. No matter what's going on in the world, our affection and loving presence is the best tonic of all. This is true for children of all ages, not just our little ones.

Rules of thumb for kids of every age:

  • Listen with all your heart to what they have to say. Whether you agree or disagree, listen with an open mind and empathize with their feelings. Don't try to talk them out of their fears, but don't focus on them either. Be as positive as you can and remind your children that there have been no further attacks on our country since September 11th. It's okay to admit that you're a little nervous too, but end the conversation on a note of hope.
  • Let them know they are safe. For young children, tell them that Iraq is very, very far away, too far for their planes or missiles to reach us here. Let them know that you will do everything in your power to protect them, as are the people at their school.
  • For older children, talk about how our government and police are doing so much to protect us-checkpoints in airports, heightened security, intelligence agencies working together to track terrorist activities.
  • Allow an outlet for their fears. Talking, journaling, drawing, painting, music, and physical activity release fears from the darkness of silence into the light of day. Don't be alarmed if your child's writing, drawing or play includes images of war and death. This is how children work through fear. Be aware, however, if your child becomes overly preoccupied with negative thoughts and images. Too much is a sign of deeper anxiety. In that case, seek the guidance of a professional.
  • Let your kids still be kids. Regardless of what's going on in the world, make sure your children have time to do the carefree things that are a normal part of a child's life. Make sure they have time for fun, leisure, and innocence.
  • Be aware of signs of overwhelm. If your child has been through any major loss or trauma already, reactions to the situation now may be intensified. New and prolonged symptoms, including headaches, stomachaches, bedwetting, frequent crying, sleeping and eating problems, clinginess, and, in older children, risk-taking behavior and inability to focus in school, may signal extreme anxiety and are worth following up with a professional.
  • Controlling our own anxiety.
    When our level of anxiety is high, we can unknowingly pass it on to our children. Subtle signals like the knitting of the brow, tensing of the shoulders, and catch of the voice can belie the words of reassurance that we speak. That's why it's critically important right now to take care of yourself from the inside out. Curtail your intake of news, and factor calming rituals into your life-prayer, meditation, visualization, yoga, tai chi, exercise, soothing music, or extra moments of solitude. Uncertain times call for extreme self-care.

    3. Make a difference. Action is the antidote to fear. Times of crisis give us the opportunity to change our lives for the better. What actions can your family take to make the world a more compassionate place? Help out in the local soup kitchen, tutor a child, volunteer for Habitat for Humanity? Choose a make-a-difference activity the whole family can do on a regular basis.

    4. Create a more peaceful home. Let your children know that countries sometimes fight wars when they don't see other alternatives. By living harmoniously in our homes, schools, and communities we begin creating peace one family at a time. Ask your children how you might begin to do this right in your own home.

    5. Let your children know that regardless of peoples' positions on the war, we must all support our men and women in the armed forces. Right now these brave people need our prayers, love, and gratitude. Being against war doesn't mean being against the people who are asked to serve. Consider sending drawings or notes to the people who are serving now and offering a prayer each day for their safety and quick return.

    6. Perform daily acts of faith. Here's my favorite. Light a candle each day and say this affirmation together:

    Give me the gift of hope.
    May I always believe in
    the beauty of life,
    the power of goodness,
    the right to joy
    for all people everywhere.

    Remember, peace begins with each of us, and every action we take counts in making the world a little more peaceful. Making the time for things that calm and soothe you will not only help you, it will help your children too. Sure, our fears aren't going to completely disappear after a hot bath, but the level of anxiety will lessen, and we'll be better able to return to a centered place inside.

    Also, stay in the moment instead of projecting ahead. All we really have is this moment, and this moment, and this moment. By staying grounded in the present, we avoid the trap of allowing our minds to become saturated with fears.

    I remember a time of great stress I was going through a few years ago. A healer I worked with gave me an exercise that really helped. Each time a fear started coming up, she told me to literally feel my feet planted on the ground and remind myself that the same earth that supports all of us was protecting me now. Doing this helped because it was a concrete way to bring myself back to the present moment. Just feeling my feet on the ground reminded me that this moment really was okay, and that what I feared most might never come to pass.

    Family rituals that bring hope.
    1. Sit on the edge of your child's bed each night. Listen, talk, and let them feel your loving presence. Do this regardless of your child's age. Even if your teen balks, try it anyway. By being there, fully present we give our children a powerful message of love, safety, and reassurance.

    2. Create new family rituals. Rituals help kids feel more secure in the face of uncertainty. Try to incorporate them as often as possible. Here are three simple ones you can do right now:
  • Family game night. Make popcorn or order pizza and play board games together. Ignore the phone if it rings. Make this your special time to be together. And while you're at it, tell some jokes or do something that inspires laughter.
  • Family dinners. Too busy to do this? Then cut back on some of the structured activities that clog up your schedule. Make having dinner together a priority right now. Each time you sit down as a family it reinforces the bond between you and gives your child a sense of safety.
  • Take walks together. They can be either under the sun or under the stars, even for just 10 minutes. This is a way to remove yourselves from the chatter of the TV and the pull of the computer. Your family together under the day or night sky -- a healthy ritual that anyone can afford.
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