Out of sight, out of mind. Or is it? The impact of the war on children in the United States.Nathaniel, a kindergartner, comes home from school crying. He tells his mother that a classmate asked him if his military reservist father, who was recently deployed to Iraq, is going to die in the war. He also has begun engaging in very violent and aggressive war play.
Hannah's mother is asked to meet with the school counselor a few weeks after returning from active military duty in Iraq. Her 2nd-grade daughter has been exhibiting worrisome behavior-rapid mood swings, from being withdrawn, to bursting into tears, to lashing out angrily at teachers and other children.
Six-year-old Natasha is in a car accident near an airport just as a low-flying plane goes over the car. She gets hysterical, screaming that a bomb hit her car because "planes drop bombs when there's a war." Her parents realize that the night before, when the TV news was on at dinner, their daughter was paying particular attention to the war report.
During a news story about the struggle of the military to fill its recruitment quota targets, Henry, a middle school-age boy, suddenly looks his father in the eye and says, "There's going to be a draft, isn't there? And I'm going to have to go fight in the war, I just know it!"
(These accounts are true; the names of the children have been changed.)
The war in Afghanistan began in October 2001 and the war in Iraq began in March 2003. After each war started, discussions addressed how it might be affecting American children and how adults could talk to children about it. Some teachers and parents felt the need to talk with children about the war, depending on children's ages. Others waited until children themselves raised the issue. Still others simply told children who raised the issue not to worry--it was for adults, not for children (e.g., Gilbert, 2003; Levin, 2003a, 2003b).
The United States has now been at war for almost eight years. Although incidents like the opening examples continue to occur daily, years have passed since there was widespread public discussion about how the wars are affecting children in the United States, the lessons children are learning, or what role adults should be playing. We believe this silence is a problem. When the adults responsible for promoting children's well-being ignore the impact that being at war is having on children, they are doing nothing to counteract the difficulties that children are having dealing with the war.
Certainly, the millions of Iraqi and Afghan children who are directly in war zones are harmed in ways too great to imagine. But we believe the war is also taking a toll on children in the United States--a bigger one than the general public or educators seem to be willing to acknowledge. We also believe that this denial has led to a failure to develop adequate strategies for trying to counteract the harm the war is causing children in the United States.
Most seriously affected are those children, like Nathaniel and Hannah, who have a parent who was deployed for active duty in the war. According to Pentagon data, more than 800,000 children have had a parent deployed in war since 2001 and about 43 percent of the Americans deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are parents (Glod, 2008). Millions of other children know someone who has been deployed. Less obvious are the lessons that all children are learning about violence--and how countries deal with conflict when war is an ongoing feature of news that children hear (Levin, 2003a, 2003b). While surprisingly little recent research addresses the impact of war on U.S. children, the anecdotal accounts we have heard from parents and teachers indicate that this exposure to the violence of war takes a toll on children. In addition, the total, ever-expanding cost of war since 2001 has competed with the funding of domestic programs. Inadequate funding for domestic programs is undermining the social and economic fabric of society, impacting the lives of many children, particularly the most needy (Children's Defense Council, 2008).
The Toll of War on Children With Parents in the Military
The opening examples illustrate the impact that having a deployed parent can have on the daily lives of children. We see how the efforts of Nathaniel's mother to protect him get undermined. We see Hannah exhibit outbursts at school when everyone thinks she should be happy that her mother has returned home.
The hundreds of thousands of children who have had a mother or father deployed face special challenges to their social, emotional, and intellectual development (American Psychological Association [APA], 2007; Levin, Daynard, & Dexter, 2008). They are confronted with numerous stressors, such as separation and fear. At this critical time when they need additional support, the parent at home has more responsibilities and so is generally less available to provide that support. National Guard and Reservist families who live in communities throughout the United States often face added challenges. These families do not have the support systems that life on a military base often provides. Children's teachers and peers may be unaware that a parent has just been deployed, returned, or injured.
Fear is a major stressor as children try to understand the dangers their deployed parents face. In addition to the many children who have a parent who was killed in Iraq, many more deployed parents have returned home seriously wounded. Children's fears that their deployed mother or father will be injured or killed are realistic. This fear, added to the normal stress resulting from separation, can take a serious toll.
Parents and teachers may observe that children of deployed parents experience mood changes, act out or become withdrawn, and/or have difficulty maintaining their level of school performance (APA, 2007; Chartrand, Frank, White, & Shope, 2008). Younger children are especially vulnerable to both realistic and unrealistic fears. Because they cannot make complex, logical, causal connections, they may not understand when someone tries to explain what is happening and why. Consider the case of Nathaniel, the kindergartner in our opening vignette, who is told by a classmate that his father will die in Iraq. Once he hears his father will die, he cannot consider multiple aspects of the situation, despite his mother's attempts to explain things to him. Additionally, his level of thinking does not allow him to work out the actual risk his father may face. In other ways, it can be harder for older children, like Henry, who are able to think more logically. Because they can consider the multiple factors involved in a scenario, older children can better imagine and comprehend the various dangers their deployed parent may be facing. Older children and adolescents can become anxious and depressed as they consider all the possibilities.
Similarly, families face new stressors when the deployed parent returns home--permanently or temporarily (APA, 2007). The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are characterized by a historic number of brief homecomings followed by redeployments. Redeployment can result in unsettled, "yo-yo" relationships that trigger the same stress and fear reactions over and over.
For too many families, the parent who returns "for good" arrives with physical and/or psychological wounds that affect everyone. A recent Rand Corporation survey estimates that more than 30% of soldiers who have served in one (or both) of the wars return home with a mental health condition, such as posttraumatic stress disorder or depression, or with a traumatic head injury (Tanielian et al., 2008). Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report record suicide rates among returning soldiers (Jelinek, 2008)--adding unimaginable new layers of stress to children's lives.
Even when the returning parent arrives home in relative good health, family reunification poses a new set of challenges (APA, 2007). Just when everyone has high expectations of things returning to normal, family members often discover big changes. Children are now older and family relationships have changed. Often, the children have learned how to live in a single-parent home. Some younger children have never lived with or barely remember their deployed mother or father. Hannah's story illustrates that during the post-deployment phase, children face adjustment stressors that can lead to a wide range of serious behavioral consequences, including regression, depression, rapid mood swings, anger, sleep disturbances, and problems in school (Levin, Daynard, & Dexter, 2005; National Child Traumatic Stress Network, n.d.).
The APA report on the psychological needs of U.S. military service members and their families emphasizes numerous unmet needs. Shockingly, no national comprehensive programs exist to support children with a deployed parent. Additionally, vital research is lacking on the effects of deployment on children's development. The research that does exist from these and previous wars shows that war takes a significant toll on many children (APA, 2007; Garbarino, Dubrow, & Kostelny, 1991).
The Toll on Children Who Hear About the War From the News, Peers, and Adults
One of the things that children learn about the world from what they see and hear around them concerns how countries address their conflicts. Today, many of these lessons come from what children hear about war and violence from the media, from adult conversations, and from conversations with friends (Garbarino, Dubrow, & Kostelny, 1991; Levin 2003a).
As already discussed, children do not understand what they hear about the war as adults do. They draw their own unique and not totally logical or predictable conclusions, using their prior understandings to comprehend new experiences. This is evident in the example of Natasha, the 6-year-old girl who learned, probably from the media, that planes carry and drop bombs. When her car has an accident just as a plane goes overhead, she is terrified and believes that the plane dropped a bomb on her car. The adult logic that the war is "taking place far away" does not deter her conclusion. She is capable of keeping two contradictory ideas in her head at the same time. We also see how older children's thinking often works in the story of Henry, the middle school boy, who comes home from school convinced there will be a draft and he will have to go fight in the war. Henry focuses on the aspect of war that would have the greatest impact on him, rather than on the multiple aspects adults might consider to understand how individuals end up becoming soldiers.
Despite the unique ways children understand what they hear about the war, some common themes can be found in the lessons that today's wars are teaching them. The wider world is a violent and scary place. People and countries solve their conflicts using violence and do terrible things to each other as a regular part of daily life. For as long as these children remember, these themes have characterized how the world works and what their country does.
We are raising a new generation of children who are learning to see violence as the normal, even the preferred, way of resolving conflicts; it is a regular part of everyday life. These "daily lessons" in violence from the media are dangerous for the children themselves and for the wider society. They can desensitize children to the effects of violence and make it more likely that children will incorporate violence into their own behavior and relationships (Grossman & DeGaetano, 1999). Violence seems powerful. Working for peace and non-violent conflict resolution from the interpersonal level to the international level can seem irrelevant. When we are silent, we fail to help children make sense of what they hear about war, fail to teach them alternative lessons, and fail in our responsibility to them as well as to the wider society.
The Toll on Children Due to Insufficient Government Spending on Domestic Programs
Government spending always involves decisions about priorities, about how much money is raised and how it is spent. Now, spending on war seems to have taken priority over spending on children. A 2007 UNICEF report on the well-being of children in the world's richest countries found that the United States ranked 20th of 21 nations in the overall well-being of children (United Nations Children's Fund, 2007). The report used such measures as levels of infant mortality, poverty, and education to determine the rankings.
Since 2000, record war expenditures, coupled with other more recent conditions, such as a weakened economy and tax cuts, have created a "perfect storm" that is undermining children's programs. Through 2008, the total funding estimate for the wars is approximately $800 billion, including about $600 billion for the war in Iraq (Congressional Research Service, 2008). And the costs of war continue long after war ends. The Congressional Budget Office, citing such costs as medical treatment for veterans, projects that by 2017, total war costs could range as high as $1.7 trillion (Congressional Research Service, 2008).
To date, decisions about budget priorities are having the greatest effect on the children with the greatest needs. Catherine Crato, an economist with the Children's Defense Fund, points out that
Since 2001, the U.S. has chosen to spend an incredible amount of resources on the war while letting funding for children's programs stall or even be cut. Unfortunately, this has the greatest impact on our nation's most vulnerable children--poor children, uninsured children, children in underperforming schools, and children without access to high-quality early education and child care. President Obama campaigned on a platform that had several important proposals to reverse this course and improve the well-being of low-income and vulnerable children, and we hope that he will keep these promises to children. (personal communication, January 2, 2009)
Using the government figures cited above, the Children's Defense Fund calculates what increased funding would mean in the lives of children. With the same amount we are spending on the Iraq War in less than six months, all children and pregnant women could be provided with access to comprehensive health coverage and all children could be lifted out of poverty for a year (Children's Defense Fund, 2008)
According to the American Friends Service Committee (2007), the cost of just one day of the Iraq war could fund any of these enterprises:
* Eighty-four brand new elementary schools (average cost: $8,500,000)
* More than 95,000 Head Start slots at a cost of $7,550 per year
* School lunches to over 1,150,000 children for a year (average annual cost per child: $624)
* The cumulative pay for more than 12,400 schoolteachers for over a year (average salary: $57,000).
Regardless of one's views on these wars, the United States must make meeting the needs of children a higher priority than is currently the case. If figures such as these were a regular part of the public debate, perhaps there would be greater public concern about the toll that budget priorities are taking on American children, today, as well as for their well-being as adults. Ultimately, all of society is affected.
Strategies for Action
Educators in the United States can and should be doing more to address the short- and long-term effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on children. Children need us to help them negotiate the meanings of what they are hearing and counteract the harmful lessons the war is teaching. We also can work to create a society that makes meeting the needs of children a bigger priority. Some recommendations for action follow:
Strategies for Reducing the Toll of War on All Children. These strategies are relevant for all children, whether they have a deployed parent or are primarily learning about the war from what they hear (Gilbert, 2003; Levin, 2003c).
* Take on the role of trusted adult: Trusted adults have a vital role to play in helping all children feel safe and be able to sort out what they hear. Children need to know you will be respectful and listen as they raise questions or share their ideas about the war.
* Protect younger children as much as possible from exposure to news violence--in the media or from adult conversations: You cannot fully protect them, but the less they see and hear, the better.
* Take the lead from children in discussions: When children raise an issue, use open-ended, age-appropriate questions to find out what they know, and answer questions in ways the children can understand. Tell younger children what they seem to want to know (not the whole story), and reassure them about their safety. Support older children and adolescents by encouraging them to seek reliable information and find the answers to their own questions.
* Support younger children's efforts to use play, art, and writing to work out an understanding of scary things they see and hear: Open-ended (versus highly structured) play materials--blocks, airplanes, emergency vehicles, miniature people, a doctor's kit, markers, and paper--help younger or less verbal children work out ideas and feelings. Their play, drawings, and writing may help you understand what they know and worry about.
* Engage older children in discipline-related curricula that challenge their thinking about war and conflict resolution: Consider subject matter activities integral to such classes as literature, social studies and history, journalism, the arts, economics, and psychology. Promote discussions that engage older children to listen to others, seek more information, and respect other students and their viewpoints.
* Be on the lookout for signs of stress: Watch for changes in behavior that are signs that children need additional support, such as increased anger, aggression, or withdrawal; younger children may demonstrate difficulties separating from parents and troubles with transition.
* Help children of all ages learn alternatives to the harmful lessons they may be learning about violence and prejudice: Discuss nonviolent ways to solve conflicts in their own lives. Help children look at different points of view in conflicts. Try to encourage critical thinking rather than just telling them how to think.
* Discuss what adults are doing to make the situation better and what children can do to help: Children feel more secure when they see adults--including elected officials--working to keep the world peaceful and safe. Children of all ages also learn from finding concrete things they themselves can do to help.
Special Strategies for Addressing the Needs of Children With Deployed Parents. We urge all educators-classroom teachers, administrators, school psychologists, and school counselors, as well as those who train educators--to identify and be alert to the needs of these more vulnerable children, and to advocate on their behalf (Levin, Daynard, & Dexter, 2008).
* Keep current: Make sure you have all relevant information about all children whose parents or older siblings are currently or have been deployed.
* Identify children's needs: Remember that all phases of deployment, not just separation from a parent, are very difficult for children of all ages.
* Work with mental health personnel: Seek additional information and support for yourself from school psychologists and counselors. In general, it will help to maintain normalcy, acknowledge feelings, let children know they can talk and you will listen, and give extra support to children and parents when special issues arise--like with Hannah, the child who exhibited erratic behavior when her mother returned home.
* Act quickly to make appropriate mental health referrals: Parents often turn to their children's teachers, rather than to school or community mental health professionals, when they sense trouble. Assist families by making personalized referrals to trained mental health professionals.
* Support families' own efforts to seek resources: Regard this as a two-way process. Families often can help educators learn about materials available from websites of such organizations as the Military Family Network (www.emilitary.org), the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (www.va.gov), and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (www.nctsnet.org). As noted in the APA report (2007), resources for children and families are limited and no nationwide programs exist. Families may be frustrated by the lack of resources. Educators can be of help by connecting them with local resources to fill this major gap.
A Call to Action
Today, educators in the United States face ever-increasing pressures to focus their efforts on teaching basic academic skills for high-stakes tests--often at the expense of addressing other pressing needs. This article is a call for us, as educators, to recognize and take seriously our responsibility to help children in the United States deal with the impact that war is having on them.
This means helping children deal with the violence they hear about in the world and to make it a legitimate part of the curriculum. Doing so will contribute to children's overall sense of safety and well-being, a necessary condition for ensuring that effective learning will occur and helping them learn alternatives to the lessons of violence--and build the foundation they need to live together in peace. This also means working together as educators to influence the priorities of the U.S. government. We cannot allow the cost of waging war to overshadow our commitment to children.
American Friends Service Committee. (2007). Cost of war: Facts and figures from the Cost of War Project. Retrieved June 23, 2008, from http://afsc.org/cost/facts-and-figures.htm.
American Psychological Association. (February 2007). The psychological needs of U.S. military service members and their families: A preliminary report. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved June 17, 2008, from www. apa.org/releases/MilitaryDeploymentTaskForceReport.pdf.
Chartrand, M., Frank, D., White, L., & Shope, T. (2008). Effect of parents' wartime deployment on the behavior of young children in military families. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 162(11), 1009-1014.
Children's Defense Fund. (February 13, 2008). A legacy of failure: Millions of children and families are still struggling. A critique of the President's FY 2009 budget request. Retrieved January 5, 2009, from www.childrensdefense.org/site/PageServer?pagename=policy_budget.
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Levin, D. (April 2003c). Guidelines for helping children during times of war. Peace Work Magazine. Retrieved October, 20, 2005, from www.peaceworkmagazine.org/pwork/0304/030422.htm.
Levin, D., Daynard, C., & Dexter, B. (2008). The "So Far" guide for helping children and youth cope with the deployment and return of a parent in the National Guard and other Reserve Components and National Guard. Needham, MA: Psychoanalytic Couple and Family Institute of New England. Retrieved November 14, 2008, from www.sofarusa. org/downloads/SOFAR_2008_Final.pdf.
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Diane E. Levin and Judith Van Hoorn
Diane E. Levin is Professor of Education, Wheelock College, Boston, Massachusetts. Judith Van Hoorn is Professor Emerita, University of the Pacific, Stockton, California.