Has your child been asking big questions about the war in Ukraine?
With the current situation in Ukraine at the very forefront of the world’s news right now, children may be exposed to detailed information about the crisis that they may find upsetting, either via the news, radio or general conversations that they may overhear. This can lead to feelings of fear, anxiety and uncertainty which as parents, carers, and educators we all need to mindful of and address appropriately.
Younger children are naturally very curious yet they might not fully understand the circumstances surrounding a situation and therefore they may have questions about the images, stories, and conversations they are exposed to. It is essential to have open and honest conversations with children to help them process and make sense of what is happening. Below is some guidance on how you can do this.
Protecting Children from the News.
It’s difficult to shelter children from everything they see and hear so do this as much as you can, particularly younger and more vulnerable children but at the same time be realistic about how much you can protect them from and try not to become anxious and overwhelmed yourself in the process. Limit conversations that younger children may overhear at home or words that may be confusing or upsetting for them.
Unlike older children who will have a more of an understanding that war can lead to death, younger children will find it difficult to make sense of concepts such as ‘death’ and ‘war’. The part of the brain that deals with abstract thinking is still developing at this age so you may find they blur reality with fantasy. With this in mind it is important to provide a safe space to talk and be curious with them as they may have formed a completely different (often inaccurate) picture of the situation to you.
How do I explain what war is to my Child?
Older children may have an idea of what war is, they’re likely to have heard words like “invasion” “army” “soldiers” etc and begun to learn about it in history classes.
If your child asks you what War means, ask them to explain to you what they think it means so you can get a feel for where they are with their understanding as a starting point. Remember children have vivid imaginations and may paint a very obscure picture of what it means to them.
You could ask:
“What do you know/understand about what war is?”
“Where have you heard about it? (i.e. is this a reliable source?)
“How does it make you feel?”
“What are your thoughts about this?”
Once you gain an understanding of their current view you can then address any inaccuracies in an age appropriate way in order to minimise any unnecessary distress.
Adolescents will have a fuller understanding of what war means and will have access to information at their fingertips. However, they will still benefit from protected time with you to talk through the news.
Be curious about what they have heard and where they have heard it (social media/News/Peers).
Try to discourage them from accessing unreliable media sources which pull them into unnecessary distress
Encourage them to access reliable sources of information and where appropriate try and provide accurate sources of information in line with their concerns.
Keeping pathways of communication open is the most important thing here, you don’t need to check in with them every hour but let them know they can approach you whenever they need to.
What should I say if they do hear something distressing?
Open up the conversation with acceptance and curiosity.
When children ask a question they have often already created an idea in their mind so try to have the conversation as soon as possible but choose an appropriate time where you aren’t going to be interrupted and there are no time constraints – i.e. not when you’re in a hurry to get to school in the morning.
Naturally children don't always pick the best time so if this does happen to be when your child chooses to ask a big question replying with something like:
“This sounds like it’s really important to you and I’d like to talk more about it with you, how about when you get home from school later we grab a hot chocolate and have a chat”
When having conversations with children about something upsetting they may have seen or heard try to focus less on providing them with answers and more about understanding them and making sure they feel understood.
Try and explore the following with them:
What have they have heard?
How are they feeling?
What have they understood?
What are their fears or worries?
How you will support them and keep them safe?
It is important that children feel supported and validated during the conversation. Avoid judging or dismissing their concerns, even if they seem trivial or have seemingly been communicated in jest as they might actually be quite big worries for them, they just may not have the vocabulary yet or may have felt uncomfortable sharing their feelings.
When children are given the opportunity to have open and honest conversations about things worrying them, it can create a sense of relief and safety.
What if I don’t have the answer to or don’t understand myself?
“Will there be a world war?
“Will they come here”
Both very common and understandable questions at the moment. Very often we won’t know the answer to these questions and that’s OK to convey this to our children, what we can do is to respond in a way that feels safe to them, for example:
“Those are big questions, I wonder if you’re feeling a bit scared? That’s normal - I feel scared too sometimes. I don’t know the answer but I know we are safe now, if you have these worries again is there something I can do to help you feel safe then too?”
Remember you do not need to have all the answers, listening and offering a safe space for your child to make sense of their experience is the most valuable thing you can do in times of uncertainty.
Support them to take action:
If your child wants to do something to help and feel part of a solution you could support them in doing something practical;
Could they write to your local MP or other decision makers
See if there is anything they can do via charitable organisations like Red Cross
Put together some supplies and find out where a local organisation might be able to receive this and get it to those who need it
Create posters calling for Peace fostering a sense of community and belonging
Look after yourself
What is happening around the world affects us all, an attack on any country is an attack on humanity and for adults this can lead to us feeling unsettled ourselves. Make sure you do whatever you need to feel safe and contained.
Talk to your partner and friends, take care of your physical self, rest and notice how much news and information you are absorbing, come away from this if you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by what you’re hearing, if you are not feeling mentally healthy you won’t be able to be fully present for your children.
Dr Kate Mason is a Clinical Psychologist. She runs The Everyday Parenting course and supports families with mental Health and wellbeing and offers workshops & training to health and care professionals and schools throughout Worcestershire and the UK.
You can contact Dr Mason: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or follow on social media for course dates and workshops: @rootspsychologygroup