When news started pouring in about the invasion of Ukraine, my heart sank. Hearing about the families torn apart as parents went off to fight broke my heart. I worried about the loss of life, and the terrified children hiding in makeshift bomb shelters.
I also worried about my own kids here in the U.S. I knew that even if I tried to shield them, they would hear about what was happening. I wanted to make sure they weren’t too scared by the stories and images being shown on TV and social media.
I was particularly concerned about my fourth-grader, who is a sensitive soul, not to mention a history whiz and geography expert. When I first told him about the war in Ukraine, he took a cerebral approach–rattling off historical facts about past conflicts in the region, and wondering how the map of Europe might change if Ukraine was overtaken by Russian forces.
A few days later, he seemed more somber. His teacher mentioned the conflict at school, and his response was, “I wish people would just stop talking about it!” I knew that hearing about it was troubling him. How do you explain the violence, loss of human life, and trauma that war causes without making it a potentially traumatic experience for your child?
I know I’m not alone in feeling unsure about the best ways to approach these conversations with our children—how to balance keeping them informed while making sure their mental health stays intact. With that in mind, I reached out to a few experts in the field about ways to help our children move through these challenging times.
Why It’s Important to Have These Conversations
It might be tempting to just ignore the subject and hope that your child won’t hear much about it, but that’s probably not the best approach, says Nakia Scott, MD, ABIHM, child and adolescent psychiatrist. Even if you would like to shield them from the subject, most kids have access to social media, will hear about the events from their friends, or will overhear the news on TV, says Dr. Scott.
Having a safe adult to help them process this all is key. “It can be very frightening to children to hear about stories of terror and war without understanding context,” Dr. Scott explains. “For example, younger children in our country may wonder if the war in Ukraine is close to where they live and if they are in imminent danger.”
It’s totally understandable if you feel uncomfortable broaching the subject, says Megan Ledet, LCSW, and Vice President of adolescent services at Lightfully Behavioral Health. “It is absolutely normal for parents to have hesitancy or feel resistance toward talking with their children about war. We have a natural instinct to protect our kids from things in life that are uncertain, threatening, unknown, or anxiety-provoking.”
Still, it’s important that we try to work through our own emotions about the topics and find a way to bring it up with our kids.
“Kids will look to their parents to learn how to manage challenging emotions, so being willing to talk with them even if you’re uncomfortable can be a way of modeling healthy approaches to hard feelings,” says Jennifer B. Dragonette, PsyD, a child and adolescent psychiatry specialist, and clinical services instructor for Newport Healthcare,
7 Experts Tips For How To Navigate These Talks
Knowing that these conversations are important is one thing, figuring out the best way to navigate them is something else. Our experts chimed in with their best tips for making these conversations developmentally appropriate for kids.
Keep It Age Appropriate
Your preschooler is going to have a different ability to understand war than your elementary school kid will. Likewise, approaching the subject with your teen will require a very different approach than for younger kids.
Younger kids may need a more generalized explanation, says Dr. Dragonette. “It can help to let younger kids know that there’s a conflict happening right now in the world that is scary, and lots of adults are trying to help get people to safety,” she suggests.
On the other hand, older kids have probably already heard about the conflict on social media or through friends. Since they are better able to understand concepts around culture, governments, and war, you can have more direct conversations with them, paying attention to their emotional reactions as you move through these subjects, Dr. Dragonette says.
Choose the Right Time and Place
It’s best to pick a time to talk about something like war when your child is relaxed and open. “Some kids are most receptive to discussions in the morning, in the car on the way home from school, or during dinner time. The timing of a discussion about war, or anything difficult, has everything to do with your child’s unique needs,” says Ledet.
Ledet says it’s best to avoid talking about heavy subjects during times of stress, and Dr. Dragonette recommends avoiding the topic before bed.
Focus on the Helpers
As awful as war can be, there are always stories of hope, generosity, strength, and perseverance of the human spirit. You can choose to focus on those stories, says Dr. Dragonette. “Find positive stories to share with your kids such as organizations reaching out to assist people in need or young people passionate about peace,” she suggests.
You can also encourage your child to be a helper, says Monica Barreto, PhD, a pediatric psychologist with Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. Doing so can give your child a purpose, and make them feel less helpless.
“For both young and older children, finding a way to help can be comforting and provide a sense of control,” says Dr. Barreto. “This can be by making a donation, writing a letter, or drawing a picture.”
Ask Them What They Know
Rather than inundate your child with information, you can ask them open-ended questions to gauge where they are at. This will make the conversation less one-sided, says Ledet. You can also focus on what they already know, and go from there.
“Ask your child what they’ve heard about the war and how they are understanding the events that are unfolding,” Ledet recommends. “Ask them how they feel about what’s happening. Invite them to ask questions and leave the conversation open-ended.”
Keep in mind that you don’t have to know everything or have all the answers, says Dr. Barretto. In this case, it’s okay to tell your child that you need to look up some information and circle back with the answer, she explains.
Be Mindful of Their Reactions
All kids are going to react a little differently to these conversations, and they may not be able to tell you outright if something is scaring them or making them uncomfortable. Try to be as mindful as possible of how they might be feeling.
“If you’re sharing war-related information and notice your child’s eyes widen, that could be a sign that what you shared may have startled them,” Ledet offers. “Saying something like, ‘I noticed your reaction to what I just said, let’s talk about how that made you feel,’ can go a long way in developing trust within this interaction and help our children’s sense of safety and containment.”
The main idea is that you want to create a safe space to let your child “feel the feels,” adjust your tone when needed and give your child the space they need to process their feelings throughout it all.
These days, with media literally at our fingertips, it can be difficult to keep our children away from the 24-hour news cycle. But Dr. Scott suggests we try to limit our child’s exposure, especially during times of violence and war.
“In some households, the television is constantly on throughout the day for background noise,” Dr. Scott notes. “This can be particularly harmful during times of war when there may be horrific and grotesque images and sounds.”
Dr. Scott suggests we also have conversations with our older kids and teens about limiting media use. You can talk to them about the effects of being exposed to upsetting news and images, and suggest limitations to their media use during this time.
Do It Little By Little
After a few days of ongoing conversations, I asked my fourth grader to weigh in on the best way to talk to kids about the war. His answer? Do it little by little: don’t inundate your kid with too much information at once. “Maybe talk about it a small amount each day,” he suggested.
Dr. Scott agrees with an approach like that. She also notes that you may find that when you sit down to talk to your child about war, they simply might not be ready. That’s okay: your first conversation simply be an introduction to the topic, and you can wait for your child to be ready for more.
“If a child isn’t ready to discuss the topic of war, honor their request,” Dr. Scott advises. “Perhaps they need time and may be more comfortable revisiting the topic later.”
A Word from Verywell
However you go about talking about war with your child, it’s important to remember that all children are different, and require different approaches to a complex and emotionally intense topic such as this. Try to meet your child where they are at, and be conscientious of how they are reacting along the way.
If your child seems particularly upset or affected by world events, consider finding a children’s therapist for them to talk to. You can ask your pediatrician for suggestions. If your child is school-age, you can contact their school psychologist for input as well.
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