The Parish School Blog

Tips for Talking with Your Children About the War in Ukraine

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Many of us have been following the events in the Ukraine and are feeling the stresses of war from afar in order to gain a sense of understanding and trying to process what has happened and what will happen.  Like adults, children also are attempting to make sense of what they have seen or heard or just merely felt since the war began.  It’s a topic that is important to address with our children at home and thus has prompted providing some tips to engage in this discussion in a constructive and helpful way.  

Process your feelings first.  Upload calm to download calm.

If you are uneasy, worried, upset about the situation, chances are your child will be too as children often pick up cues about how to feel based on the emotional reactions and responses from parents.  Even infants and toddlers can pick up on anxiety and stress in their family members.  If you are feeling stressed, sad, or angry, it’s best to process those feelings yourself and engage in healthy strategies for soothing yourself so that when you discuss it with your children, you will feel calm and regulated, thereby supporting your child’s ability to feel calm and regulated.

Limit their exposure (and maybe even your own exposure!).

In this day and age, there is often immediate access to images and videos of violence through social media and 24 hour news.  Try not to let your child experience the news without you.  Be mindful of the TV or audio content playing 24/7 in the background or even scrolling through social media, even if you think your child is not paying attention.  For younger children, turn off the TV, change the channel, or close the social media app when children are around to limit exposing them to distressing footage.  Even though it’s helpful for children to know enough to feel they understand what has happened, exposure to graphic images, too much information, or continuous and repetitive media coverage can cause increased distress, anxiety, and can even be traumatizing as it can trigger feelings of fear and helplessness.  It’s also important to be mindful of your own exposure and response to that exposure that you experience yourself.  If you find yourself feeling consistently keyed up, stressed out, significantly sad or depressed with media exposure, it may be helpful to take a time out from tv, computers, and phones yourself!

Make yourself available to talk.  Ask what they’ve heard.  Bring up the topic even if children haven’t already done so.

Sometimes parents may think that if their child is not talking about these events that maybe the child doesn’t know about it.  Parents may be worried that bringing up the topic may cause unnecessary distress.  Often, that’s a false assumption.  Some stories or events are simply too big to avoid.  Even if you are not talking about it at home, children may hear about war or events in the Ukraine from classmates at school or overhear adults in other settings discussing it.  Ignoring or avoiding discussion of the topic can increase feelings of fear, being lost, and feeling alone.  Open and honest conversations with children can help them process these events and support their overall health and well-being.  Give children the space to tell you what they may already know.  Ask them how they feel about what they have seen or heard.  Let them know it is okay to ask you questions that they may have.  They may not want to discuss it right away and that is okay.  You do not have to force them to have a conversation with you about it but just letting them know that the door is open to share their thoughts and feelings with you is an important step.

Children may have formed a completely different perspective of the situation that what you have and that perspective may not be entirely accurate.  Listen for misunderstandings or frightening rumors.  Acknowledge confusion.  Opening up conversation about these events allows you to correct any misinformation that children may have and provide kids with the facts.

For elementary children, you can initiate discussion by saying, “I wonder if you have heard that a war started way across the world.”  Emphasize that the conflict is far away and use accurate terms such as “war”.  For early childhood children, conversation might be opened with, “There is a war in Ukraine.  Ukraine is a country that is very far away.  War is when countries fight and are not being safe.  The war in Ukraine is very far away from us.”  You can also use a map or globe to visually help children see the distance and how far they are from it.

Know that this is not a one time discussion and does not need to be covered in one long conversation.  As the war evolves over time so will children’s questions and feelings.  It is okay to check in on this topic over multiple conversations over time.

Validate their feelings. Don’t minimize or discount fears.

During these conversations, children may verbalize feeling upset or may show they are upset by crying, getting anxious, showing increased fidgetiness or motor activity, or becoming cranky.  Validation of their feelings supports children’s perception that they can talk freely about things upsetting them, creating a sense of relief and safety.  Let them know it’s okay to feel sad, worried, or scared. Often having these feelings of worry about the war means that a child has empathy!  Be careful to avoid saying things like, “There’s no reason to be worried,” or “don’t be scared.”  Instead you can say, “Lots of kids feel scared about that too,” or “I also feel worried about the people of Ukraine.”

Give age appropriate facts and content.

Be mindful of the child’s age when discussing and not necessarily their chronological age.  Many of our students here at Parish may process social-emotional information at a delayed developmental age so it would be important to take that into account when deciding how much detail to provide for them.  Younger children may not understand what war means.  Or may have heard details about the war but not understand the larger context of the war.  It is important to provide a developmentally age appropriate explanation.  When discussing with younger children, be sure to provide concrete information in low detail.  For example, for younger children, an explanation of war might sound like, “Sometimes countries fight.  Sometimes countries are not helping to keep it safe.”  More details may be more appropriate for elementary aged students and older.   It’s important to not label “bad guys” or “evil” even though it may be tempting to do so.  Using labels may increase fear, confusion, and perpetuates blaming in an attempt to regain control of uncomfortable feelings.  Talk about people being in pain, being angry, and making unsafe choices to solve their problems. 

Provide thoughtful answers to common questions.

Anticipate and prepare yourself for questions that your children may ask.  Types of questions asked will depend upon your child’s age and their individual sensitivities; however, possible common questions may be “whose fault is it?”, “is this going to change my life?”, “can I help?” or for younger children, “am I safe?”, “are mom and dad safe?”  Children who have had significant life experiences such as loss of a loved one, trauma experiences, exposure to high rates of violence in their community, who have family members who are active military, or who are part of communities that have experienced racial bias and discrimination may be at greater risk for increased distress.  Children who have general challenges with anxiety or depression may also be at greater risk of distress. 

It’s okay to not have all the answers or the perfect answer.

You might be tempted to give blanket reassurances or guarantees, such as “everything will be fine,” in response to tough questions or questions you don’t have the answer to.  Adults often think that’s what children want to hear but it’s not ultimately useful because it doesn’t always ring true.  It is okay for parents to say, “I don’t know.”  In fact, it’s probably more helpful to say “I don’t know why it happened,” or “Sometimes we don’t have the answers to all of these whys,” or communicate our uncertainty of the situation with gentle honesty such as, “Lots of world leaders are doing whatever they can to figure out what’s going on, but we’re not sure yet.”  Often what children need more than the all the answers or the perfect answer is just someone they trust to listen to their questions, accept their feelings, and be there for them.

Provide honest reassurance.  Assure them that adults are working hard to help everyone be safe.

Assure children that they are safe.  Remind children this is not their problem to solve and that it is okay to play, see their friends, and do the things that make them happy. 

Encourage processing through play and art.

You might feel disturbed or worried to see children reenact details they have heard about the war or draw something scary or violent but this type of play serves an important purpose and is typical when bombarded with stressful information.  Play and other creative, expressive activities provide children a way to make sense of what they hear and see in their world in an age appropriate way.  It helps children process these stressful events and reconstruct their own stories to help make meaning for their lives.  It is okay to let children engage in this type of play as long as they are being respectful to others involved.  You can respond to children’s play or art with statements such as “tell me more about this drawing,” “I wonder how that person feels,” “that person looks really scared”.  These statements also provide ways to open up more conversation about this topic to give you a better idea about how the child might be feeling.  If you notice that your child seems to compulsively engage in this type of play or art in a repetitive way and that the child seems stuck in feelings of distress when engaging in this play, this might be an indication to seek outside support from a professional.

Look for helpers.  Focus on the positive.

One of my favorite lessons that we have done in our social emotional learning times is a lesson that helps students to see the best in each other.  In early childhood classrooms, we call it “looking for kindness”.  It helps create a sense of community that is safe, loving, kind, and looks to see each other’s best intentions.  When we are bombarded with the worst in our world, emphasizing how people are helping people can help kids feel safer.  Identify and notice out loud to children how people in Ukraine and all over the world are helping Ukrainians and working together to find solutions to keep the people of Ukraine safe.

Identify ways to be helpful.

Urge compassion towards those affect by war.  Once children are assured they are safe, many want to help and it’s important to help them do so.  This supports building of empathy and provides a way of coping by taking action.  Encourage younger children to help by simply drawing pictures, writing notes of kindness, or wishing well to the people of Ukraine.  Wishing well is a concept from the Conscious Discipline social emotional curriculum that we use at Parish as way for students to support each other and calm themselves by offering love and caring to others.  It provides a way to help others when there is no tangible way to offer help.  To wish well 1) put your hands over your heart 2) take a deep breath in 3) pause and picture something precious in your mind 4) breathe out while opening your arms and sending those precious, loving thoughts out to the person you are wishing well.  Elementary children can also wish well in addition to raising funds for reputable, sending letters to local decision makers, or helping to collect necessary items such as food, water, supplies to send to organizations supporting Ukraine efforts.

Seek further support when your child needs it.

Although some distress is typical, monitor your children for signs of significant distress, indicating that they are not adjusting or coping well and that outside support may be helpful.  Be alert to sudden changes in eating habits, irritability, or a preoccupation with violent media.  The Student and Family Services department at Parish is staffed by licensed mental health providers and are an available resource if you have any further questions about discussing these events with your child or if you have any concerns that your child is experiencing heightened distress.  If you have more questions about how to discuss these events with your children at home or about how these events may be impacting your children, please contact Lily Yoder, LPC, RPT, Director of Student & Family Services at lyoder@parishschool.org or at 713-467-4696-ext 5223.