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Counseling adolescent students affected by the war in Iraq: using history as a guide.

The schemes of war of today's generation of adolescents might be heavily influenced by the War in Iraq because it is the first war this generation is likely to remember living through. Although the War in Iraq has produced a unique set of circumstances and concerns for adolescents who have experienced it, there is much to be learned from past wars about the types of counseling that would be helpful and appropriate. Considering developmental theories and information gleaned from previous wars is helpful in establishing best practice methods for counseling adolescents during times of current and future international conflict.


Historically significant events of the time periods from which students' life experiences are based are of great consequence when exploring developmental challenges (Elder, 1994). Reflecting on these significant events, such as wars, is crucial for understanding the context from which students tell their stories. Furthermore, developmental theories serve as frameworks for connecting historical events to students' lives. When applied to adolescents, Erik Erikson's psychosocial stages of development, Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development, and William Purkey and John Schmidt's self-concept theory provide counselors with insight into the implications for counseling students whose schemes of war are being shaped by the War in Iraq.

Adolescents construct schemes based upon what they have learned or experienced. The scheme serves as a means for organizing declarative knowledge or factual information (Eggen & Kauchak, 2003). Adolescents' war schemes are likely to be shaped by what they learn about through school coursework, messages from peers and adults, and the media. The schemes of war of today's generation of adolescents might be heavily influenced by the War in Iraq because it is the first war this generation is likely to remember living through. The schemes of war that adolescents are constructing are the foundation for interpreting international conflicts as the War in Iraq continues to unfold and future international conflicts ensue.


Erikson (1950/1963) cited adolescence as a time of identity versus role confusion. Young adults are challenged to develop an understanding of themselves in relation to the world; adolescents try on different roles in an effort to discern a stable sense of self and personality (Santrock, 1998). Kohlberg indirectly addressed the historical impact on development. His "conventional level" of moral development, which is characteristic of adolescence, is driven by a need to maintain social order while what is "right" depends on the approval of others (Good & Cartwright, 1998). Drawing upon the approval and influence of others' ideas is a preliminary component of individual moral reasoning. Purkey and Schmidt's self-concept theory (1996), when applied to adolescents, incorporates perceptions of self with roles held. Some of the roles adolescents often hold include student, son or daughter, and friend. These roles in turn influence attitudes and perceptions surrounding war.

The process of working toward an understanding of an individual's developmental history can be central to the counseling process, especially when applied to one's perception of a specific event or construct, such as war. Applying Erikson, Kohlberg, and Purkey and Schmidt's theories of development to adolescent groups who experienced World War II, the Vietnam War, or the Persian Gulf War facilitates a more comprehensive understanding of those adolescents whose schemes of war have been shaped by the War in Iraq.


During World War II, adolescents were surrounded by peers who were joining the war efforts with a patriotic fervor that has not been experienced since (Gallup Organization, 2001). There was a personal connection to servicemen; many adolescent males were part of the service and many females held a personal connection to those servicemen. As a peer group, adolescents grieved the losses and celebrated the successes of war. Individual sacrifices were readily accepted because sacrifice was the norm among not only the adolescent group, but also American society. For those who lived through World War II, sacrifice was a way of supporting the troops who were overseas (N. Caldwell, personal communication, March 10, 2003). The social order of America changed to reflect the needs of the armed forces, as well as to compensate for the changes in social structure. The conventional stage of moral development was reflected in the shared belief of adolescents that military service was honorable. As adolescents took on new roles of servicemen or World War II hostesses, their self-concepts were influenced by wartime as well. The time period for adolescents to truly be adolescents was shortened by America's need for young men and women to take on adult roles that extended beyond the traditional roles of adolescence.


The Vietnam War era was a sharp contrast to World War II in regard to adolescent norms and identity development. The hopeful optimism that characterized citizens' response to World War II was replaced by vocal skepticism and criticism of the Vietnam War (Coles, 1993). Voluntary sacrifice was replaced by visible protests against the draft. Adolescents identified with antiwar efforts by burning draft cards, staging protests, and speaking out against government involvement overseas. The adolescent peer group was divided; those who were called to serve experienced group alienation upon their return to the United States (Maraniss, 2003). As a group, adolescents questioned the sacrifices being made, yet played an active role in carrying out America's war tactics. In October 1967, 50,000 war opponents marched on the Pentagon, most of whom were adolescents and young adults (Boyer et al., 2001). The moral development of adolescents was driven by what was viewed as right and wrong by the social order of the Vietnam War era. The social order was characterized by young people taking on the roles of protestors, peace activists, and servicemen. Young men, especially, were put in the precarious position of fighting for ideals that the government held but that their peer group condemned.


The Persian Gulf War was marked by a clarity and purpose that the Vietnam War era lacked. Ample warning and a clear trigger for war combined with a short, successful military effort alleviated much of the dissonance associated with prior generations' war schemes. As a peer group, adolescents did not define themselves by the war effort because it did not encompass the adolescent experience as the Vietnam War had for the previous generation. The Persian Gulf War did not play as crucial a role in adolescent moral development as previous wars. The social order of the adolescent peer group, and society as a whole, did not change dramatically or for a significant duration during the time of the Persian Gulf War. However, adolescents during the Gulf War were more patriotic than the same age group had been during the Vietnam War. Although adolescents supported the U.S. government's engagement in war in the Persian Gulf, the attitude of the peer group was in opposition to war in general (Schroeder & Gaier, 1993). The draft was not put into effect, and therefore military service continued to be voluntary. Adolescents, in general, were afforded the opportunity to continue in their roles of students, sons/daughters, and friends; however, those with a personal connection to the Persian Gulf War experienced the uncertainty and loss similar to past wars.


The international conflict and terrorist acts on American soil and across the world are challenging the adolescents of the early 21st century to shape their scheme of war within a framework that is qualitatively different than that of the adult community. However, counselors can look to international conflicts of the past in an effort to better understand the impact of recent conflict on moral reasoning, role differentiation, and identity development. The War in Iraq, beginning in March 2003, paralleled the first Persian Gulf War concerning quick success and relatively few American casualties. The media coverage during the conflict with Iraq, however, was not safeguarded by the Pentagon, and as a result Americans were inundated with graphic scenes of a war-torn country. Americans, for the first time, had access to real-time updates from the front fines and saw familiar faces of journalists embedded in Iraq. Unlike the Persian Gulf War, America did not enjoy the economic advances that are often associated with a "wartime" economy. Instead, Americans continued to suffer from economic instability, high unemployment rates, and a huge national deficit (Gallup Organization, 2003).

The adolescent need to maintain social order was challenged by the War in Iraq. Public opinion was influenced by the confusion surrounding whether the events of September 11, 2001, directly precipitated U.S. involvement in Iraq or if other events were the direct cause of occupation (Langan, 2003). Adolescents looked to the media, voices of nightly newscasters, peers, and family members for cues to determine what was right. The confusion associated with the War in Iraq and whether it was a "just war" created discrepancies that shook the social order of the time. Shortly after September 11, 2001, the call to arms expressed by the American public rivaled Americans' response to Pearl Harbor (Gallup Organization, 2001). However, over time worries of replicating scenes from the Vietnam War era also began to surface among U.S. citizens.

The unique characteristics of the War in Iraq influenced the American public unlike any previous war in history and, as a result, affected an entire generation's perceptions and schemes of war. Purkey and Schmidt's (1996) self-concept theory when applied to adolescents incorporates perception of self with roles held. Adolescent roles during the War in Iraq changed qualitatively to meet the demands of wartime. For example, an adolescent whose central roles were consistent with "student," "son/daughter," and "friend" might shift to include "draft eligible," "reservist's son/daughter," and "friend of soldier." Redefining one's self-concept, in response to international conflict, might precipitate the movement of wartime roles closer to the central "I."

As roles shift, the way in which adolescents define themselves to the world is challenged. Because adolescents are typically in a time of identity versus role confusion (Erikson, 1950/1963), the cognitive dissonance they experience is magnified. Experiencing war for the first time during adolescence has a significant impact on how adolescents' adult schemes of war are formed.


Although the War in Iraq has produced a unique set of circumstances and concerns for adolescents who have experienced it, there is much to be learned from past wars about the types of counseling that would be helpful and appropriate. Some learnings that counselors can glean from past wars include helping students grieve the loss of family and friends who have served in the military during wartimes (World War II); allowing adolescents to be heard as citizens (Vietnam War); and recognizing that even brief, successful wars create anxiety and fear for those who have never experienced wartime firsthand (Persian Gulf War).

Although the War in Iraq may have the characteristics of past conflicts, it is the unique combination of those characteristics and the emergence of new characteristics that make the impact of this war different. Those who lived through this time of conflict in the United States have witnessed terrorist attacks on American soil, vocal protests at home and overseas, threats of biological warfare, regime changes in Iraq, detainment of war criminals, questionable behavior of U.S. soldiers, clear division of party lines during a presidential election year, and the continued instability of the Middle East. It is difficult to know the extent of the impact the War in Iraq has had on those adolescents who have experienced it. However, recognizing adolescents' lack of firsthand experiences with war can be a tool to open communication between generations of people.


The War in Iraq continues to have a profound effect on adolescents, extending well beyond the declaration of an official end to "major combat" on May 1, 2003 (, 2003). Ongoing troop deployments and casualties continue to be headline news; therefore, school counselors face the responsibility of remaining abreast of global events. Once Iraq is stabilized, counselors should remain mindful that the War in Iraq is likely to be a significant historical event in adolescents' life experience. Integrating counseling techniques with current events provides counselors with strategies for working with adolescent students affected by the War in Iraq and its aftermath.

Applying Erikson's Theory to Practice

The process of developing a sense of identity, or who an adolescent will become as an adult, is an exploration (Broderick & Blewitt, 2003; Erikson, 1950/1963). The event of a war and how one responds to international conflict is part of defining oneself as a young adult. Timelines, genograms, and interviews are tools that counselors may use to allow students to explore their definitions of who they are, as well as how they have come to be that person. Encouraging students to construct timelines of the events that have shaped their lives thus far could help students gain insight into who they are becoming, as well as providing the school counselor with insight into where the students are coming from. Students use the timeline to identify roles that they have taken during each event and may recognize patterns for continued exploration.

Another way to target students' past experiences and to investigate roles is to draw family genograms. Genograms can serve as visual representations of how students' families have responded to past wartime experiences. For example, how many people in the student's family were members of the military service? This is useful in identifying current schemes that students have, while also linking historical events to present ones, helping them understand that although the present war is a first-time experience for them, it probably is not for others in their families. The genogram also could then be useful in allowing students to take on the perspectives of other family members. Furthermore, encouraging adolescents to "interview" older family members or friends about their experiences during past wars may help adolescents to explore their schemes of war and identity.

Applying Kohlberg's Theory to Practice

Kohlberg's research focused on broad moral dilemmas and the reasoning provided for judgment (Broderick & Blewitt, 2003). War is a prime example of a very real event, yet an uncommon event that spurs many moral dilemmas for adolescents to wrestle with. Some examples of these moral dilemmas include parents' values or political views versus the students' views, the role of religion in war, and prejudices learned from current international conflict. From past wars we have learned that many adolescents want their judgments to be heard yet many are too young to have the voice of a vote. Group counseling, therefore, may be an effective intervention for students struggling with social issues (Hayes, 1994). Providing a forum in which young people can respectfully express their opinions and struggle with the conflicts at hand teaches perspective taking and tolerance of diverse opinions (Hayes). Counselors engaging adolescents in thoughtful group discussion may be able to challenge students' scheme or framework for understanding the construct of war so that students may clarify and differentiate their beliefs about war from the messages received from others. Popular music, editorials, literature, or cartoons may be catalysts for making connections between individual and societal views of conflict.

School counselors can create forums for students to discuss the events seen on television. Classroom guidance lessons focused on being informed consumers of information may help adolescents differentiate between facts and a particular newscaster's spin on the conflict. This was especially important in the 2004 election year, when the presentation of events and the results of the 9/11 Commission were major political platforms, and continues to be relevant given the ongoing media coverage of the events in Iraq. School counselors should look for opportunities to supplement the curriculum and enter into discussions of the emotional appeals associated with the media's presentation of domestic and international politics. A classroom guidance lesson might include the use of art--each student draws a political cartoon that depicts a message or question about the war, and the cartoons are posted anonymously around the room to serve as a stating point for discussion.

Applying Purkey and Schmidt's Theory to Practice

Self-concept theory (Purkey & Schmidt, 1996) is a framework for organizing roles. During wartime, the dynamic and modifiable aspects of the self-concept (Purkey & Schmidt) may be called upon to balance the anxiety and stress associated with international conflict. Helping students to list central and peripheral roles and challenging them to identify shifts in their roles that are linked to wartime is a simple means of applying the self-concept theory to practice. The hierarchy of adolescents' roles may alter to reflect current events, illustrating a cognitive shift for some adolescents. For example, roles such as voter, child of a veteran, American, international student, Muslim, Christian, minority student, friend of military personnel, or draft-eligible male may become more prominent in adolescents' daily lives and may even replace previous self-perceptions. Providing an opportunity for adolescents to name these roles, as well as validating students' roles, allows them the ability to verbalize internal cognitive shifts that may occur. A more subtle approach toward allowing students to share perceptions of themselves would be to encourage adolescent students to bring in songs that they are able to identify with. This approach may work better with resistant students, especially.

School counselors should keep in mind that not all counseling techniques will work with all students. Group counseling, individual counseling, and psycho-educational counseling are all useful when working with adolescents during wartime. However, an important consideration for this age group is to allow students the freedom to choose the techniques they feel most comfortable with, as well as the ones that will be most beneficial to them. Some may need the support of peers with similar life circumstances to help them face the realities of war, while others may simply need an adult to listen to them share their concerns. When deciding which settings and techniques to use with adolescents during wartime, it is especially important to consider their psychosocial development, their moral development, and their individual life roles. These factors influence the ways in which students are able to process thoughts and emotions. Overlooking these three critical factors could mean overlooking the most beneficial use of counseling time.


While the impact the War in Iraq is having on today's adolescents cannot be fully evaluated until the region is stabilized, school counselors are faced with the challenges of working with adolescents during a time of conflict, hostility, and confusion. The significant series of events surrounding the War in Iraq may impact the schemes of war of today's generation of adolescents. Considering developmental theories and information gleaned from previous wars is helpful in establishing best practice methods for counseling adolescents during times of current and future international conflict.


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Eggen, P., & Kauchak, D. (2003). Educational psychology: Windows on classrooms (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

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Maraniss, D. (2003). They marched into sunlight: War and peace in Vietnam and America, 1967. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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Schroeder, D. F., & Gaier, E. L. (1993). Middle adolescents' views of war and American military involvement in the Persian Gulf. Adolescence, 28(112), 950-962.

Adria E. Shipp is a school counselor with the Buncombe County School System, NC, in its Safe and Drug Free Schools Program, and is a visiting instructor in the Communications Department at West Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC. Elysia V. Clemens is a doctoral student with the Department of Counseling & Educational Development, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. E-mail:
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Author:Clemens, Elysia V.
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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