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When a child’s favorite uncle is sent to war
Q: My brother, who is my 4-year-old son’s favourite uncle, was deployed last month to Iraq. Now my son talks about fighting, wants a toy gun and asks to watch the TV news. He’s also waking up with nightmares. How can I make this easier for him?
A: Unfortunately, millions of families are affected by wars and violence. Children respond differently based on their degree of exposure to the violence, their age and understanding of the situation, their individual temperament and the reactions of their parents and other adults around them.

Your own worries about your brother’s safety and your son’s talk of fighting and nightmares are all normal emotional reactions to the stresses of war. Here are some basic suggestions from the American Academy of Pediatrics for how parents can respond to their children’s emotional needs during war:
  • Take care of yourself first. Children pick up on the emotions of the adults around them. If you’re very anxious or upset, your son is more likely to feel afraid and upset. You don’t have to pretend that nothing has happened and that you have no feelings—in fact, it can be helpful to let your child know you’re upset. But try to save your intense emotions for when your son is not around, since these can be very scary for children. Make sure you have the opportunity to talk with someone (a family member, friend, clergy or mental health professional) to help deal with your feelings.


  • Try to maintain normal family routines. Maintaining your routines for eating, sleeping, preschool, work, exercise and family time can help you and your son feel more safe and secure.


  • Ask your child what he has heard about the events. Open the discussion. Don’t pretend that nothing has happened. But first you need to know what your child understands. Listen for any misinformation, misunderstandings and underlying fears or concerns.


  • Give your son lots of hugs and reassure him that he’s safe. Show him that you’re responding to his feelings, and tell him that you and other adults are doing everything possible to keep children safe and end the fighting.


  • Explain the events as simply as possible. Give only as much information as your child needs based on his age, questions and concerns. Let him know that his uncle is with lots of other people in the armed forces who are working to keep each other safe.


  • Minimize your child’s exposure to violence. Watching news coverage of the war, violent TV shows and movies can increase your son’s anxiety. Try to avoid exposing him to toy weapons as well. If your son catches some TV news, discuss what he’s seen and how it makes him feel.


  • Help your child take positive actions. For example, he can draw a picture to send to his uncle or dictate a letter to you to the President that explains his concerns.


  • If your child shows signs of extreme stress, get professional help. Most children experience mild reactions that don’t interfere with their daily lives. But if your son appears overly anxious, can’t sleep due to nightmares, loses his appetite, repeatedly fights with other children or refuses to play with others discuss this with your doctor and consult a child mental health specialist.