When something “big” happens—a current or natural event– I always write a blog, sharing with parents how to talk to their children about it. My website is filled with blog responses from over the last twenty years. I came very close to not writing a blog about the war in Ukraine, feeling like I have said it all. But I haven’t. My job is to help you help your children.
This war in Ukraine is not going away quickly, as I prayed it would. The whole world is reacting. Children, elementary school age and older, know there is a war. This time they are hearing things tossed around like refugees, bombings, nuclear war, World War III,. While it may be happening far away, it is very real. In addition, this geopolitical event has created an extreme humanitarian crisis. Beyond the obvious, there is tremendous need to which we all must respond. And while we are not feeling the direct pain of war, we are all feeling its effects in our hearts, our emotions, and of course in our wallets. What’s a parent to do?
I want to remind you, first of all, as always do: Take care of yourself—your concerns, anxieties, fears, and your loose expression of all of these. This event makes us all feel out of control. Not being in control can be incredibly anxiety producing for any responsible parent. Beware! Your children will absorb your emotions and expressions of feelings of all kinds. You cannot be the parent you want to be if you are not taking care of your emotional self.
For parents of any age child, mind these tips:
- Be honest. Answer the questions you are asked honestly to the best of your ability and with your child’s development and temperament in mind.
- “I don’t know.” It is absolutely okay to say that you don’t know the answer to a particular question. Then you can either search for an answer together or talk about the possible answers. If it is an unknowable answer, validate the curiosity and concern being expressed. “We all wish we knew when it will be over; but we just can’t say.”
- Remember, unanswered questions lead to unasked questions. No child should be told s/he is too (young) anything to talk about that! Find a way to give an honest answer…always.
- Listen for the real question beneath the question. Often there is worry underneath the child’s words. Address that worry. “You are asking if American people are getting killed. Are you wondering if we are going to be hurt?”
- Mind your affect. All children look to their parents to know how to feel about confusing things. If you are modeling your fear, your child will pick up on that. If you are acting like it is no big deal, your child will pick up on that, too. Find a way to be honest and sincere, but do not add a filter that raises your child’s own concerns.
- Don’t whisper. When parents whisper, children’s ear perk right up. If you don’t want your child to hear what you are saying, save it for another time. And know that the walls have ears, too.
- Honor your child’s feelings. Acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings, whatever they may be, and do not downplay them. Saying “Oh you don’t need to be afraid about that” doesn’t help. Rather try, “It really is so scary to think about a war. I get it; I understand your feelings.”
- Share your own feelings…to the appropriate degree. It is okay to let your child know how you feel if you communicate it in a way that doesn’t rub off, creating additional fear.
For parents of young child
It is likely that our nursery school age children have heard nothing at all. Let’s keep it that way.
- Turn off your media…all of it! Whether it is NPR in the car or the news on the kitchen TV, turn it off! Don’t create problems where they don’t exist…yet.Remember doors and walls have ears. Keep in mind that your children hear everything, especially when you are on thew phone or when you think they are not listening.
- Don’t mention it! If the topic doesn’t come up, you need not. There is absolutely no reason for our very emotionally vulnerable young children to know about the war in Ukraine. They are not able process this news.
- If…and only IF your child brings it up, first ask him to tell you what he has heard.
- Answer honestly with few words. “Yes, I did hear that there is a war in Ukraine.”
- Talk about it being very far away. Look at a map (though map reading is not yet his skill.) He can see where Ukraine is in comparison to the U.S.
- He is safe. Remind your child that it is your job to keep him safe and that he is safe.
- Share all the ways we are safe. Talk about all the people whose job it is to keep us safe all the time: the police, the fire fighters, the security guards, soldiers, etc…
- Remind your older siblings who may know about the war, NOT to discuss it within earshot of the little ones.
In addition to all of the above, for elementary school age children consider the following:
- Likely this child has heard something. Children hear what is being said on the playground or just in passing. Their peers with older siblings or loose lipped parents may have leaked the news (even inadvertently). In addition, children are selectively perceptive to certain words like “war” “guns” “ bombs” “killed”–all those scary, testosterone words. Their ears perk right up. And, like the game of “Telephone,” what they hear can be far from reality.
- Find out what the child knows/has heard. When s/he brings it up, you can ask, “Tell me what you have heard.” using a genuinely curious voice. You can even bring it up (with children older than 7 years) by saying, “Is anyone talking about what is happening in Ukraine?” If you get crickets, you can leave it alone. Know that it is pretty sure that s/he will hear soon.
- Correct any misinformation.
- Be prepared for several and ongoing conversations. As much as we wish it were, this one is not one and done.
- If the child asks Why? Depending upon your child’s age, development, and maturity this is an opportunity to explain many things:
Why countries go to war
The historical perspective. Point out how countries have battled over land forever
What Putin wants
- Look at a world map. With your older children, look at a world map to explain the war by giving it a visual component. It also shows how far away it is.
- No one wants war. It is reassuring to explain to this age child that no country really wants war, wants to hurt or kill people. What they want is to disable the country in order to take over the country and make it their own.
- Discuss what the world is saying. Children need to know that almost all countries in the world are against this war and what Putin is doing.
- The humanitarian crisis. Depending on your child’s age, development and maturity, explain the crisis for the people of Ukraine.
- Solicit ideas for what you can do to help. Being proactive is a salve for feeling helpless and out-of-control in fear or with worries. Brainstorm with your child what you might do to help. (Lemonade stands, closet cleaning, donating, etc…)
In addition to all of this above, for middle and high school age children consider the following:
- Acknowledge the news onslaught. The daily review of the current events in Ukraine on media screens has made this event even more real. It is in our faces and may not feel so distant. Explain how this affects the children.
- The teen’s information may be incomplete. While your child may have heard about the war in Ukraine, it is likely that they don’t know the how and why of it. The child is old enough to know more.
- Inquire about what the child’s friends are saying and what has been said in school. Model genuine curiosity in your questioning (not nosiness). Then correct any misinformation.
- Social Media. Teens today get their information from social media. If it’s on Tik Tok it must be true! Take the time to correct what might have been taken as fact or the whole story, knowing it is likely inadequate.
- Speak the teens language. Since social media resonates with teens as their communication of choice, consider viewing the following links to Tik Tok presentations together. (They are a bit old, but nonetheless good.)
Why is Russia invading Ukraine
What does Putin want?:
What is NATO?
- Ask your child for her/his opinions. Then LISTEN and acknowledge the response without judgement. The idea is to encourage ongoing, open communication about the topic.
- What if questions. Older children have the ability to see a bigger picture and may address what might happen. You don’t need to know the answer to this (since we don’t, really). But together you can explore and discuss the possibilities.
- Reassure your child. Even older children need to hear you assure them the we are safe. Older children can discuss the defense systems of the U.S. and our readiness for a conflict of this sort. Assure them that the whole country and world is addressing how to keep safe.
- Discuss global issues. This is an opportunity to expand your teen’s understanding and thinking in addressing the geopolitical climate in the world today. While this has, hopefully, been addressed in school, this age child needs to know about it. If ever there were a good time to learn, this is it. This topic is broad; take care not to get bogged down by too many concepts or words! But your teen is capable of understanding the world picture. This is an ongoing conversation, a process, as their learning and understanding need to unfold over time.
- It’s time to discuss Democracy and freedom, both of which we take for granted.
- There is a positive side (kind of). Amid this doom and gloom, the positive side of previously silent European nations stepping up is worth mentioning. The power in numbers is important and reassuring.
- What can you do? Sit down with your children and discuss how you and they can help. Feeling like they can take action and have an impact during turbulent times calms the out-of-control feelings and fear.
Here is a link to organizations that make a difference.
Some children will continue blithely through their lives, unaffected the news of the war in Ukraine. Others will be more disturbed or distressed, and they need help.
Here are some of the signs that your child might need that help.
In young children:
Young children are transparent and predictable. Their dysregulation might be seen in changes in their:
- Sleep/night wakings
- Eating habits
- Ability to separate from parent or care giver
- Play patterns or desire to play
- Acting out violence/war in his/her imaginative play
- Bed or pants wetting…or more
- Becomes easily upset by the smallest things
In older children: Note all of the above, plus
- Changes in their regular patterns or habits
- Spending more than the usual time away from you, in the bedroom (cave).
- Seems distracted
- Seems to have trouble focusing, getting his work done
- More moody than normal.
- Picking fights with siblings or parents…more than normal.
Any of these with any age child should be noted and watched. If these behavioral changes continue, it is important to consult with a mental health professional.