As a journalist living in Srinagar, Majid Maqbool is no stranger to violent conflict. But he was caught by surprise when his three-year-old daughter saw a newspaper with photos of children blinded by injuries and asked, “Isko eyes main pellet aaya hai?” “She had picked up the word from the afternoon news my parents watch,” speculated Maqbool, who until then thought his daughter was insulated from the events around them. Noorain is only a toddler, but she is increasingly curious about why her school is shut for long periods because of curfews and is familiar with words such as tear gas and how to cover her face and hide in a corner to avoid the smoke from tear gas shells.
We live in a time when we are witness to terrible occurrences across the world, whether it’s the situation in Kashmir, Bastar, or Syria. Even our cities are no strangers to violent conflicts — whether it’s the Babri Masjid communal riots of 1992, the siege of Mumbai on 26/11, or conflicts sparking over water issues like in Bengaluru. Children are particularly vulnerable and susceptible to what is happening around them or even far away from them. It can cause extreme trauma and stress.
“Children are not adults-in-waiting,” says Shreya Jani, managing trustee at Standing Together to Enable Peace Trust. Jani says, “They see the world and sense it pretty deeply in my experience. When exploring any idea with children, or adults for that matter, one needs to inculcate a scientific temper along with compassion. Ask them questions about what they think they are hearing or seeing. How does it make them feel? Why is it happening, according to them? Push them to seek their own answers and guide them through this inquiry though compassion.”
As a child, it’s often hard to make sense of what is happening. The television is always on at home, newspapers, websites and radio bear graphic images and videos of violence. Last year, when Bengaluru erupted into violence to protest against the Cauvery judgement in September, a friend narrated an incident — a child, as she was being ushered home from school, asked her mother the purpose behind actions like burning buses or harming public property. Given the easy access to media, most children can easily find answers in one quick Google search, but they may not always be the most appropriate ones.
According to clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta, if your child asks about a particular conflict, it’s crucial to have a conversation, because otherwise they may end up building their own narratives in their head. “Even if you’ve not spoken about it to your children, they have may have heard about it from other children, or at school,” says Gupta, who is a practising therapist and has worked with clients from Afghanistan who were exposed to conflict.
Gupta’s daughter, who is now seven years old, heard about the 2015 Paris attacks in school during the morning prayer and later, she heard versions from older students in the school bus. “She came home and said I want to read about it,” recounts Gupta. Instead of handing over a newspaper or turning on the news, Gupta encouraged her daughter to ask questions and she tackled them. “First, find out how much they know about it,” she recommends. “Once you know, have a conversation about it. Explain to them in a very fact-based manner. And allow them to share their feelings about it.”
For Maqbool too, it’s crucial to explain to his daughter what is happening in Kashmir. “I think as a parent I would want her to understand what is happening around her,” he says. “As children ask questions and then maybe get answers to their questions in bits and pieces, they understand. I would be uncomfortable telling such a young child everything since it can be confusing. But at the same time, I find that they are often quick in finding out when some harm happens,” adds Maqbool. Gupta says that in cases where a child is not aware of the conflict situation happening in remote place at all it’s okay not to talk about it. However, parents need to foster spaces where children can feel comfortable talking and sharing.
Peace education in schools is one way of helping children navigate the world they live in. “Peace education is very important as the world has becoming more apparently interconnected,” says Jani, who has a Masters in the subject from University for Peace in Costa Rica.
Gupta adds that it’s crucial to inject hope into the conversation with your child. “There is violence, yes, but talk about non-violence and compassion,” she says adding, “How there’s hope. Talk about community building efforts, for one, how the law works, and how the situation can be resolved eventually.” Jani agrees. “Engage children,” she stresses, “Make them think at the same time feel and share these feelings. Always channelise it towards a positive action response that they can take to overcome these negative emotions and foster compassion and reflection and inquiry.”