What is a parent’s most important duty? Most of us, across cultures and contexts, would say it is to lovingly keep our children out of harm’s way. Not only do we want our children to be safe, we also want them to feel safe, so they can explore and enjoy the world around them.
But what if the outside world doesn’t feel so safe to us? How can we instill a sense of security in our children when the world feels like a scary place? Or on those occasions when the world is a scary place?
Few face these issues more acutely than families with a parent in harm’s way. My research examines the ways in which stressful and traumatic events change families and, more importantly, I work on finding ways to help parents protect their families in hard times. For the past decade, my team and I have worked with American families whose loved ones were going to or returning from war. An old military adage says that when a soldier serves, the whole family serves. Since the early 2000s, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, US service members’ families have been exposed with few breaks to the stress of wartime life. In the past nearly two decades, more than two million American children have experienced the anxiety of having a parent deploy to a war zone, sometimes to return with physical and/or psychological injuries, or sometimes never to return.
These families have taught us so much about living under stress, not least of which is the struggle to help their children process the experience. One of my research team’s first meetings was with a group of thirty or so parents with a spouse deploying to war. We asked them to introduce themselves and share one concern they had about how the forthcoming deployment might affect life at home. One mom said, “I think I speak for quite a few of us when I wonder: How much of my own emotional distress is it OK to share with my kids? I don’t want to upset them. I want to show them I can do this—I can keep the family together, our routines in place, and our celebrations going—while my husband is in Iraq. But sometimes, when I hear about soldiers killed or injured, or I hear about an attack or an accident, or my husband tells me he’ll be out of contact for a while on a mission, I just lose it. It’s just me and the kids, alone at home. What do I say to them?”
Other parents joined in. One mom said her little boy had told friends on the playground equipment that his dad was fighting in Afghanistan. “Cool!” one of them replied, “Will he kill people?” Another asked, “Will your dad get killed?” When her child returned home that day and reported what had happened, she was rendered mute. “How am I supposed to respond to that?” she asked. Some parents said that they avoided conversations with their children for fear they’d say the wrong thing and just upset them. Others wanted to be authentic, and so what if their children saw them crying? Still others were trying to figure it out. “What kinds of conversations can we have that won’t make them even more anxious?” and “How do I have conversations with my children when what’s upsetting them upsets me, too?”
For the rest of us, living with day-to-day pressure and anxiety can’t compare to the stress of having a family member at war, but there are parallels.
Statistics show the world to be safer for children now than thirty or forty years ago, but we are not feeling it. Children in even the safest places and circumstances are awash in a sea of grim news. Their anxiety is at record levels. In the five years from 2010 to 2015, depression and suicide in adolescents increased. Today, in an era of anytime-anywhere news, the impact of every big event is magnified and funneled into our homes via round-the-clock coverage and smartphone newsfeeds. Young children can be exposed unwittingly to horrifying images. Older children and adolescents hear about and interact with current events in ways no previous generation could imagine, all while it becomes harder for parents to track what their children are hearing and seeing.