How To Talk To Children About War: 5 Tips

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS

Your worry and anxiety about the war in Ukraine is completely normal and understandable. Other emotions: anger or confusion for example, are normal too. Your child’s worry and anxiety about the conflict is also both normal and understandable. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to ease the effect of difficult feelings. Knowing how to talk to children about war in a skilful way will help you support them at this difficult time.

Do You Or Your Child Have Symptoms of Anxiety?

Increased worry and stress at this complicated time is to be expected. This war, plus the pandemic, climate crisis and other global issues, has affected everyone. You may notice a number of signs of anxietyΒ in your own body. These might include:

  • Pounding heart or increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • Irritability
  • Tense muscles
  • Insomnia or other sleep issues (waking up frequently, for example)
  • Stomach pains, feeling sick, or digestive trouble
  • Headaches
  • Sweating, trembling or shaking
  • Night terrors or nightmares

If anxiety is a concern, this article on anxiety will help you.

Even if your child is not especially sensitive to worry and anxiety, you may be wondering how to broach the subject of

Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to them. How can you help them process and understand it? Read on for a clinical psychologist’s guidance.

The Age Range Covered In This Article

They Are The Future supports parents of 6-16 year-olds. This article offers 5 tips on how to talk to your child about war if they are 6 years old and upwards.

How To Talk To Children About War: A Balancing Act

In this article I explain why parents need to be skilled in their communication, because responding in the best way for children’s emotional wellbeing involves balancing a variety of factors.

1: Honesty Vs Reassurance

how to talk to children about war: honesty vs reassurance

Honesty

Even small children need honesty from their parents about dangers in the world. Giving incorrect information will lead to mistrust and even greater fear. But it needs to be balanced by explaining all the ways in which the adults around them are working to keep them safe.

Young people are likely to have heard a lot of misinformation, whether this is in the playground, social messaging or on social media or media coverage. Through simple, honest conversation, your child will learn to trust you as a reliable and clear source of information. Allow them to ask lots of questions, share and discuss their own opinions. Listen and respond thoughtfully.

Reassurance

You might be wondering: How can I reassure my child when I do not feel this way myself? Even if you have huge fears and feel pessimistic about the direction of the conflict (for example if you worry that is will escalate to a world war), you can still reassure your child that:

  • Peace and the safety of people are the number one priorities for everyone in positions of power except for a small minority.
  • Most people are good, and are trying to stop the war.
  • Your child’s safety is your top priority.
  • Your child will always be surrounded by adults who aim to keep them safe. You could give a specific example of what adults do to keep children safe.

How To Begin The Conversation

It is vital that you talk to your child about the conflict. Otherwise they may believe the confusing or false statements that they hear elsewhere, and their fear will escalate. Yet there is no single right or wrong way to do it.

Try one of these ideas (you know your child best so you know what will work):

  • Pre-plan a time to sit together and have a talk about what has happened in Ukraine, when you are both feeling calm.
  • Open up “little and often” discussions, such as in the car on the way to school or a club.
  • Message your child. You could say something like “I know some people are feeling quite worried about the bad things that are happening in Ukraine. Just checking how you are feeling about it.”
  • Ask them a question about the war. Listen to their views and carefully respond with your views in a way which is honest but reassures them that their safety is an absolute priority.
  • Use music or other creative media to provoke discussion.

Try to ensure your child understands basic facts in a way that is appropriate to their age. A teen may benefit from knowing about the United Nations and what kind of humanitarian assistance is under way. A six year old needs to know that one country has tried to hurt another country, but that lots of countries have are getting together to support the country that is being hurt. Always follow your child’s lead.

Access to the News

How much media information a child has access to should depend on 3 things:

  • A child’s age
  • Their level of maturity
  • Their level of sensitivity

Young children should not have access to the news. Their brains are not developed enough to enable them to balance the negatively skewed information with “safe thoughts”. Safe thoughts include: “Bad things are happening but I am safe”, “Bad things are happening but good people are trying to make things better”. It’s a good idea for older children who are very sensitive to be be protected from the news where possible too. Their sensitive brains are more easily traumatised. Try to switch off the news if you have an under 12 or a sensitive teen.

2: Feeling the Emotion Vs Containing the Emotion

how to talk to children about war: feeling the emotion vs containing the emotion

We should never dismiss or deny emotions that young kids feel. That doesn’t work. Yet sometimes we do it without realising, and with good intentions. “Don’t be silly”, or “there’s no need to be scared”.

A child’s anxiety must be taken seriously, because if they are left to deal with it by themselves the fear can become huge and traumatic. Whatever you and your children feel about the Russian invasion of Ukraine – fear, anxiety, anger, confusion – expressing the emotion is part of successfully processing and managing it.

Containing an emotion means allowing it to be felt without allowing it to become completely overwhelming. If you had a good experience in your own childhood of having adult contain your feelings for you, then you may find this easier to do than if you did not have this experience. However, if you did not have this containment as a child, you may need other adults to help you with this tricky task.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the news yourself, you must not be hard on yourself. However, try to contain your anxiety as best you can, so that you can also contain your child’s anxiety. This is vital for their wellbeing and a sense of safety. If you do not feel calm, wait until you do before discussing the conflict with your child. If you feel unable to do this, who could you turn to for help with this? Perhaps a co-parent, grandparent or friend? As a unit, you need to find a way to contain what your child is feeling for them. This sense of containment is necessary even for teenagers, though of course older teens have developed some skills to start to manage and contain their own emotions.

3: Making It Clear and Concrete Vs Explaining the Subtle Complexities

how to talk to children about war

How much detail should you go into when you talk to your child about the war? How much information is too much? You know your child. Most children, especially younger children, will need a concrete explanation of what is happening.

As a child psychologist I love to use visuals as these support children to understand a situation. Understanding something clearly can reduce its scariness. You could use a map to show your child where in the world the conflict is happening. Perhaps show them the countries that are working together to make people safe again. You can draw diagrams if this is helpful for your child.

If your child is a very deep thinker and wants to understand the complexities, you need to give them honest answers. However, it is often hard for children’s brains to understand complex situations. Their frontal lobes – responsible for rational thinking and reasoning – are underdeveloped, even in the teenage years. You could try making a list of complex questions your child might ask and how you could respond. Always bear in mind your child’s level of development when you are trying to help them understand the complexities.

4: Aim For Both Increased Understanding AND Committed Action

how to talk to your child about war

Understanding helps us feel safe. Your child needs to have an age appropriate understanding about war. Think of it as your job to gently and compassionately ease any confusion and develop their understanding. Understanding and information are two different things though. For example, you can have a solid rational grasp of the situation without watching the news for 12 hours a day.

With understanding, however, can come a feeling of helplessness. As a child psychologist I know that it is also important that we take committed action that is in line with our values. You can help your child to do this too.

People with the highest levels of wellbeing are those who are clear on their values, and act on their values in a small way each day. You can read more about this in my article about values and mental health. Do you remember how children made rainbows during the pandemic and put them in their windows? (At least if you are in the UK this is what happened.) This small action helped them live in accordance with their values, showing solidarity and support for NHS staff.

In my view children (and adults) will cope more positively with the difficult emotions this invasion brings if they can take committed action in some small way. Talk to your child about what you can do as a family. That might mean donating to a humanitarian organisation, or supporting a fundraiser at school. This link may help: https://ukrainianinstitute.org.uk/russias-war-against-ukraine-what-can-you-do-to-support-ukraine-ukrainians/.

5: Aim For Both Self Care For You AND Extra Nurture For Your Child

talking to your child about war

Your child cannot be emotionally well, if you are not. Self care becomes increasingly vital when stressful events happen. The stress of events outside our control takes its toll on our nervous system. We need to look after ourselves. We cannot afford to burn out or break down! This article on self care for single parents contains practical advice even if you are not a single parent. I also recommend Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s books such as Feel Better in 5, and his podcast: Feel Better, Live More.

During times of stress kids of any age need extra support and nurture. Do anything that makes them feel safe and secure, even if it feels like a step backwards in their development. It is only temporary. Feeling safe is the basis upon which your child can grow and develop further. What does extra nurture look like in your family? Cuddling up on the sofa in front of a feel-good movie? Reading your child a bedtime story even though you think they’re too old for it? Do what feels right for you.

 

Dr Lucy Russell is Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology in Buckinghamshire, UK. She is the Founder of They Are The Future.

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