“Mum, what actually is war?”

Finding answers to challenging questions

by Dr Eliane Perret, psychologist and curative teacher

War has edged closer to us. It has been around for a long time: in Afghanistan, the Congo, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and other places. But these wars were far away. Is that why they have had so little impact on our consciousness? Even the war against the ethnic Russian population in the Donbass began years ago – and many people have hardly been aware of that either. Currently, what is happening in Ukraine is present in the media. Of course, it also preoccupies our children and young people. They see headlines and pictures and watch little films on YouTube and TikTok. They sense the adults’ tense mood. Once again, children from a foreign country are being taught in their class. What now? In the best case, they turn to their parents or other confidants with the questions that arise. And then these are challenged to clarify things for themselves, so that their children may not freeze in fear and uncertainty, but remain brave in their hearts.

Getting clarity for ourselves

If we want to talk to them about these questions, we do not only have to take stock of our own level of knowledge; we also have to clarify our own emotional state. The media messages that are hailed down on us every day are not easy to process, even for adults. It is often difficult to verify what is factual information and which reports are edited with the intention of inflaming emotions and steering people’s opinions and moods in a certain direction, as is unfortunately common in times of war. These psychological processes are an integral element of present-day warfare. It is worthwhile to take your time and study different sources, as we know that disinformation is unfortunately common in times of war. And it is downright awe-inspiring to make a mental note of the “rules of war propaganda”, as formulated by Anton Ponsonby and Anne Morelli (seeCurrent Concerns No. 7 of 29 March 2022) as an internal yardstick when reading reports. This clears our thoughts, lifts the fog from our mind and gives us the inner strength that is especially important in such stressful times as well as the courage to keep going. Or as Friedrich Nietzsche said: “In the mountains of truth you will never climb in vain; either you get up higher today or you will exercise your strength so as to be able to get up higher tomorrow.”

From fact-checking to our own point of view

When exercised with enough perseverance and curiosity, “fact-checking” can lead to success and arouse interest in the debate; yet it is often more difficult to take your own stand in a conversation with fellow human beings. And this is also true for adults! Propaganda counts on this, because it is a natural need to be in agreement with our fellow human beings, especially in relationships that are important to us. So, it is not so easy to take an inner stand when the wind of public opinion blows against you. All too often, we imperceptibly begin to adjust our own opinion by fine steps until the contradiction has disappeared. It is important to reflect on this before engaging in conversation with children, especially in times when war propaganda is trying to crush the truth.

War is not a fantasy story or a computer game

Children and young people have many questions, observations and often fears, because war is associated with violence, death, rape, destruction, grief and despair. This can trigger feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Perhaps some children also begin to realise that war is not a game where the dead can rise again and start over, and that reality is different from fantasy stories with happy endings. They are confronted with disturbing images that can arouse fears. Most of them realise that something is happening which makes the adults worry and fear. They also notice the adults’ mood and sense that they are worried. They pick up snatches of conversation or notice that their parents suddenly fall silent.
  “My parents’ sudden silence occurred every time I came into the room. It was a silence that hung heavy in the air. A silence that weighed more than a rucksack full of stones,” is how Alice describes the family atmosphere when the First World War invaded her family.1 This can awaken fears in children to which we must not give room. But how we should speak to them varies according to the child’s person and age – there is no recipe! To speak appropriately to a child means to take into account his or her stage of development: What information can my child already understand? What prior knowledge does he or she have, and how complex can what is said be? That is easier said than done. Here, too, the adult is called upon to find a sensitive way in conversation – in close emotional contact with the child or young person.

Being honest and leaving no room for fantasies

Children have questions to which they expect an honest answer. We must not leave them to their fantasies. Of course, our explanation must be adapted to the child’s age and stage of development. For Tanja, a kindergarten child, it may be appropriate to compare the events of the war with a quarrel. This is familiar to her from her life with her playmates, and she can make an emotional reference. Surely, she has experienced herself that it comes to quarrels when not everyone sticks to common rules or when one child always wants to decree what the others have to do. Tanja will also understand that in such cases, everyone has to sit down together and find a solution in which everyone gets an equal chance. Of course, such an answer is no longer sufficient for a somewhat older schoolchild. Roman, for example, is sitting there with a children’s atlas and looking for Russia and Ukraine. He might want to know more precisely what is happening there. He also wants to know why the war or the catastrophe happened and what will be done now. It makes sense to him that one has to put what is happening into a larger context and to know what has happened before in this area, and he is glad that many people and countries are now trying to find a solution. But it is also important for Roman to be able to relate the events to his own life. Hadn’t he taken the pencil from his bench neighbour at school the day before and been outraged when the teacher scolded him? She hadn’t listened to him when he tried to tell her that his neighbour kept “borrowing” his felt-tip pens without asking, even though Roman did not like this. He found this very unfair. So, this incident also had a history and he understands that. Now he takes it upon himself to talk to the teacher again. Of course, these answers do not mirror the complexity of a war event, but they can also be understood emotionally by children. Young people, on the other hand, demand facts, they want to get the exact information and they like to get involved in exploring the bigger picture. It is not simply a matter of acquiring knowledge, but of wanting to get their hands on something that will enable them to remain active in a stressful situation. This will give them security and they will no longer so easily feel at the mercy of the messages pouring in from all sides. Having, in conversation with their adult counterpart, come in contact with someone who deals with them openly and honestly, encourages them in their desire to actively participate in world events. For us adults, it is therefore always a matter of supporting children and young people so that they retain confidence and hope in difficult life situations and continue to look for solutions.

Deterrence leads astray

The question of how to talk to children about such difficult issues as war has always mattered to people. Thus, peace education can look back on long experience. Attempts to create a disgust for war and a desire for peace in the growing generation by taking them through exhibitions with pictures showing the horrors of war had the opposite effect. The children confronted with it either developed fears, nervousness or insecurity, or they formed a habituation to violence as well as an emotional deadening. Studies from developmental psychology explored the reasons responsible for this. Confrontation with the atrocities and cruelties that are unfortunately part and parcel of war undermines children’s basic trust in their fellow human beings, in human coexistence in general. This deprives them of an important basis for the healthy development of their personality. Children need adults who, especially in difficult times, act as role models and show them the way of peace and give them the protection necessary for their psychological development, so that it will not suffer (cf.Current Concerns No. 21 of 29 September 2021).

Instead of creating enemy images – promotion of peaceful coexistence

Our own examination of current world events will protect us from taking to frivolous explanations and detecting guilty parties. For it is precisely the discussion with children that requires us to think into the future. We must not reduce these complex processes that have led to war or catastrophe to sweeping judgements about certain countries and certain persons. Emotionally anchored enemy images created in this way make it more difficult for people to live together. Enemy images are no support for our growing generation, because these young people will have to pursue the work at making the world a fairer and more peaceful place. We owe it to our children and young people to give them hope and confidence in this, because:
  “Where there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.” (Anne Frank)  •

1 Vereecken, Kathleen. Alles wird gut, immer. (Everything will be fine, always.); Gerstenberg-Verlag 2021

To be published soon:
Maas, Rüdiger/Perret, Eliane. Wie ich mit Kindern über Krieg und andere Katastrophen spreche. (How to talk with children about war and other disasters.) Brainbook-Verlag

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