When should we talk with a child about their past experiences with war or mass violence? Why?

In my lifetime, I’ve experienced three wars with Iraq. From my earliest memories until we left Tehran when I was seven, I woke up to citywide alarms and bombings. We had to take cover in the basement of our tall apartment building or stayed uptown at my aunt’s home, where it was supposed to be safer. Later, in the United States in 1991, I watched the televised news reports and my peers’ reactions to the Gulf War. And then in 2003 after graduate school, it began again in the aftermath of September 11.

Unable to imagine war, whenever my American friends and fellow mental health specialists find out about my exposure to war, they quickly conclude it must have had some effect on me. I’m not sure whether I’m damaged or exotic. And I imagine their questioning and awe helps with their own need to process war. It really is amazing that we are all safe and free to live happily in a society that has not experienced war in its continental borders for over 150 years.

As a mental health professional, I know it is important to talk through scary memories. Talking about memories can be helpful in reducing their intensity or make meaning from scary events. But talking will not actually eliminate the memories. I still get nervous when I hear helicopters at night hovering overhead. I live near embassies where there is higher air traffic; yet I still have to tell myself they are not war planes.

But so what? Everyone has been or will be impacted by frightening or disturbing events at some point in their life. And talking about the memories doesn’t actually address the current real life struggles, stressors, or new potential dangers in this “safe” land.

What else should we be talking about? What about present dangers and reminders of the past?

At School
Interestingly, no one ever asked me about any difficulties growing up in the United States. No one knew, not even my parents, whenever I was harassed by my peers, and even worse, by teachers. Even years after the end of the Gulf War, peers told me to ‘Go back to Iraq!’ Once a high school World History teacher approached me from behind, grabbed my backpack, and asked while laughing “Is there a bomb in there?”

Furthermore, no one ever differentiated for me that all kids, whether an immigrant or not, struggle in school at some point. Some of the events that I experienced, such as teasing, American children could relate to. And my parents were also experiencing their own challenges related to acculturation while trying to fit in at work and integrate into the community. Always looking and being from somewhere different, a certain level of normalization would have been more comforting than a discussion of war that further set me apart from my peers.

In the News and Social Media
In elementary school, I watched my peers’ reactions to the Gulf War. While I was excited that my friends finally learned where Iraq and Iran are, I was further embarrassed with the new associations. Fortunately, I grew up in the United States at a time when the media communicated the news much differently. News was broadcast four times during the day, 24-hour news channels on cable didn’t exist, and there was no social media. It felt like a much safer time; maybe because we were protected from repetitive exposure to viewing toxic trauma stories (highly emotionally arousing stories with no resolution)1.

Now in the age of digital communication, we are repetitively informed and alerted that we live in times of mass shootings, regular events of terrorism, and ongoing mass migration of people fleeing war and seeking refuge. Despite increased security, places all around the world that appeared safe before, could be attacked at any time. And up until last summer, cable news channels were still talking about a potential war with Iran. 

Exposure to videos and repetitive clips of violence on the news and social media can be disturbing for both children and their parents. Additionally, they may be learning about disturbing events still occurring in their home country and or countries of refuge. Immigrants can harbor guilt for having survived and left their families and friends behind.

It is important that parents and providers make opportunities to connect to children’s and youth’s experiences and struggles at school and in the community. Explore the presence of problems with other students, bullies, and teachers. Inquire from children and youth what they’ve seen on the news and social media. Ask them if it reminds them of anything. Ask about their fears. When parents monitor social media, in addition to monitoring for inappropriate content, warn them to look for any exposure to disturbing current events. Encourage parents to talk to their children and help them process acts of mass violence (war, terrorism, mass shootings). If you do chose to speak about past trauma, try to explore it in the context of the impact on the present.

Finally, we should honor an immigrant’s decision to not talk about the past. People shut down or they may need to forget a certain part of their lives—this is a valuable coping skill. Human beings are highly adaptable; only a tiny percent get and remain “traumatized”. And never forget that helping others with sad, scary or angry stories requires helpers to take care of themselves so they can continue to help others heal and flourish.

A webinar follows and will focus on learning and responding to a child’s current difficulties and impact of past trauma stories. We welcome your questions and comments below on interventions with immigrant children and parents on addressing impacts of current events and assimilation. This month’s guest blogger: Goli Amin Bellinger, MSW, LICSW, University of Maryland Baltimore, School of Social Work.
1.  Mollica, Richard F. (2006). Healing invisible wounds: Paths to hope and recovery in a violent world. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt.