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October 9, 2001

Calvin Prof Studies Impact of War

A research project that Calvin College psychology professor Laura Gillespie DeHaan worked on as a graduate student at Purdue has new relevance a decade later.

DeHaan was part of a project, led by Dr. Myers-Walls of Purdue, that through interviews with children and parents studied the reactions of children to the Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm).

She says that work has again become significant as the U.S. sends troops to Afghanistan.

"Very little research has been done on the effects of war on children," says DeHaan, "especially on those not directly in harm's way. "After Desert Storm we did interviews with children and heard from them as to their perceptions of war. What we learned may hold true with this war as well."

DeHaan and her colleagues found that children were both worried and sad about Desert Storm. Parents also reported that their children had an increased sense of patriotism. And children had very little sense of the war ending or how it ended.

"The good news," she says, "is that even though almost all the children, even pre-schoolers, knew about the war and were worried about it, few parents reported serious behavioral or emotional problems related to the Persian Gulf War."

DeHaan notes that the "plot" of the Persian Gulf conflict paralleled very closely the plot of childrens' war cartoons.

The standard plot of such cartoons includes peace and calm interrupted by an evil person who does something bad out of pure selfishness and greed. The only thing this enemy understands is violence so the good guys fight the bad to restore peace. They win, but the bad guy escapes at the last minute to subject the world to his evil and violent ways again.

"The latest conflict," she says, "also follows this plot and so it too will be very much on the minds of children."

In light of their research DeHaan and her colleagues formulated some ways to talk to children about war. They recommend:

  • Be a primary source of information.

    "Children would rather hear frightening information from their parents," says DeHaan. "Even young children may hear about the war from TV, peers, or classmates, and it may be helpful for you to be among the first to discuss current events with them. This also allows you to share your personal values about war and peace with your children."
  • Be as truthful as possible.

    "Because of the richness of children's imaginations, they often invent information to fill in the gaps of what they hear," says DeHaan. "My child informed me that 'we will never be able to fly again because all the pilots are dead' and that the 'whole of New York City had been destroyed.'"
  • Reassure your children that they and their family will be safe.

    Says DeHaan: "Children often respond to crisis very egocentrically, and some need a lot of reassurance that the war is being fought far away."
  • Help them find concrete ways to express feelings about the war.

    "This could be praying or drawing pictures for members of the military," says DeHaan, "or even sending toys to victims of the recent tragedies."
  • Keep routines as similar as possible

    "And," says DeHaan, "allow for additional time for talking or snuggling at bedtime, which is when a lot of anxiety can surface for children."
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Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
616-957-7069 (f)