How to talk with children about events in Ukraine

Feb 27 2022

How to talk with children about events in Ukraine

“Encourage and support your kids, because children are apt to live up to what you believe of them.”
—Lady Bird Johnson

Like people all over the world, I watched the news from Ukraine the past week with a sense of disbelief. Yes, there were all the warning signs for the past few months, but naively, I thought this type of conflict was relegated to the dustbin of history. However, as Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Speech, “and the war came.” So here we are in 2022 witnessing what may be the largest conventional attack since 1945.

As head of a PK3-12 school, my thoughts immediately go to how we discuss this conflict with children as they are bombarded with images from the conflict. In our era where so much is available to children, it can be all too easy for them to become consumed by the news and doomscroll endlessly. In the process, they can imagine the very worst may be imminent.

Several articles offer advice on ways to discuss, or not, the war with children of different ages. As with so many other topics, it’s important to understand how we personally feel about the topic before discussing it with our children since they will pick up on our emotions regardless of our words. Writer Siobhan Smith quotes therapist Tania Taylor in the British journal Metro:UK, who advises:

“First of all, you need to consider your own state of mind in relation to what is going on and how much information you would personally like to give your child. This is important as even if you are led by your child’s questioning, you begin with at least some self-awareness of how you are feeling and where you want to go with it. If you are particularly anxious about it all, it may be that you choose to wait until a time when you’re feeling less anxious to talk about it. Or perhaps having a discussion with another important adult in your child’s life, who can talk to your child instead, like a teacher or grandparent.”

Once we feel ready to discuss the topic, we should take cues from our children. In “How To Talk To Kids About Ukraine,” Melinda Wenner Moyer shares thoughts from child psychologist Dr. Emily W. King. “If your child asks questions, it may not be that they are terrified or upset. Many kids “will just ask us questions out of curiosity,” Dr. King said. When they do, try to answer them calmly and accurately, without getting overly emotional yourself, she said.” It may be that children have no desire to discuss the topic, and that’s ok.

We should let them know that we’re more than willing to talk whenever they wish. (Alas, as parents of adolescent children may already know, this can occur right as we’re winding down for the evening.)

We should also practice active listening so we ensure that we’re addressing their specific concerns. As Taylor counsels:

“‘What you are doing here is paying full attention to your child during the whole conversation, ignoring distractions, and putting all your focus on listening to your child’s words,’ she tells us. Listen to what they’re asking, and don’t give more information than they are asking for. We humans have a habit of oversharing, this is a situation when that’s not necessarily helpful. And if you don’t know all the answers to their questions, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. Tania adds: ‘Perhaps you can spend time searching for information together, or maybe you feel more comfortable saying you’ll find out and let them know later on.’’

This can be all the more true for children who are prone to anxiety so it’s important that we pay attention to their body language and habits, like eating and sleep patterns, in addition to the words they verbalize to us.

Active listening will also enable us to devise questions that go to the root of our children’s concerns and fears. As Moyer points out, “It could be, for instance, that your child is conjuring up images of past wars and is worried that their community is going to be invaded. Or maybe they’re worried that food prices are going to increase, and they’ll have nothing to eat.” Or they may be afraid of something we have not even considered, so it’s imperative to understand what they are feeling or thinking before we respond or attempt to dispel their anxiousness.

In her articles, Siobhan Smith provides guidance for children of different ages. For children under 7 years old, parenting consultant Kirsty Ketley says,

“‘I think it is unlikely for this age group to properly pick up on what is going on,’ says Kirsty. ‘But, if they do overhear your conversations or see the news and ask questions, it is important to make sure they know they are safe and that what is happening is not in our country – perhaps showing them on a map or globe, so they can grasp the distance. Kids of this age don’t need to be burdened with news that they are unable to understand, so if they don’t mention it, don’t bring it up. Let them be blissfully unaware.'”

For children ages 8-12, Ketley recommends watching sites that explain events in a developmentally appropriate manner. We should also consider how we ask them questions and focus on how to help them deal with their concerns rather than necessarily putting them in the position of explaining their worries which can make them all the more nervous. For teenagers, we should aid them in finding sites that can provide valuable and truthful information and be available to them for high-level conversations. We need to recognize their intelligence and desire to understand what is happening while also realizing that they are being inundated with information that may be inaccurate.

As much as possible, we may want to monitor what children are watching and attempt to guide them toward sights that are specifically designed for them. For example, Common Sense Media provides a list of child-appropriate news sources that may be helpful.

It’s also perfectly understandable that some children may want to do something to help but feel that there’s nothing they can do. Knowing this can provide a wonderful opportunity for parents and children to identify organizations that engage in charitable work and actively attempt to alleviate suffering. Teaching children that they may not be able to stop the conflict but they can aid others in pain can be a valuable lesson on ways to be a concerned and engaged citizen.

Much in the same way we didn’t foresee needing to teach our children about a pandemic, we probably did not plan to speak with them about a land war in Europe. Equipped with the proper tools, we can help our children comprehend the world’s complexities but also the role they can play in making it better for others.

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