How to talk with your child about war?

event Published 2022-03-05T07:00:00.000Z
Helpful resource:Talking to children about war and conflict

While there are many helpful resources that you could access, consider reading this helpful article from psychologist Dr Laura Markham on talking to your child about the war in Ukraine. 

How to Talk with Your Child about the War in Ukraine

4 min read •

No matter where in the world you live, it's hard to watch the news from Ukraine. Bombing of civilian areas, fleeing citizens, ordinary people standing in front of tanks. The news is constant, so our children, particularly older kids, can't help becoming aware of it. And because the conflict is upsetting to us, and the violence is so senseless, it can be hard to answer our children's questions about it.

This post will give you language to answer questions about the war in an age-appropriate way for kids from preschoolers to teens. While you may consider this a mess that is fit only for adults to discuss, your child may be hearing about the war, drawing conclusions, and feeling anxious. So it's important to let your child know that they are safe, and reduce their anxiety by answering any questions they have.

Below is your age by age guide with talking points and questions to ask your child. But first, some general guidelines.

  1. Turn off the news. You can check in periodically yourself, but avoid exposing kids of any age to upsetting screen images and reporting. Fear shouldn't set the tone in your home, even when there is a war.
  2. Watch your own tendency to react strongly in front of your child. Kids take their cues from us, and our overreactions make them feel less safe. Calm yourself before you talk with your child.
  3. When your child asks you a question, first ask them what they have already heard about the issue, so that you can correct misinformation and alleviate anxiety. So even more than giving your child information, you want to listen to their worries and reassure them. This is true for kids of all ages, even into the teen years.
  4. Empower your child. When children see unfairness and pain in the world, it can make them (like the rest of us) feel despairing and cynical. So when you talk with your child about tragedies, always talk about the people who are helping, working to make things better. Then, ask your child what he or she can do to help. Feeling that we have any ability at all to help is an antidote to the powerless that we otherwise feel in the face of tragedy.  Young children who don't have much understanding of money may want to draw a picture, say a prayer, or send love. Older kids and teens might want to donate some of their saved allowance or raise money to donate to one of the many organizations working to save lives in Ukraine.

Preschoolers

Kids this young should not be exposed to the news, but they may overhear things, or hear from their friends.  If your child raises the issue, ask what they've heard. Accept any fears they may express: "It could be scary to hear that," and reassure them that this is happening very far away and they are safe. Explain that sometimes even grownups forget to use their words and that can lead to fighting, which hurts people and is always sad. Ask if they would like to draw a picture and to send love to the Ukrainian people.

School-Age Kids (6-9)

With children under the age of ten, you don't need to raise the issue, but do be alert if your child raises it. Ask what they've heard, and what they think about it. Ask if they've been wondering anything about what is happening and why. Listen to their fears without dismissing them, and then reassure your child that you will keep them safe: "Bombs here in California? That IS a scary idea. Thank goodness, that is not going to happen. The fighting is far away. And I will always keep you safe no matter what."
 

Answer your child's questions simply in terms they can understand, such as:

  • Ukraine has been an independent country since World War II. There have been ongoing arguments about who should control Western Ukraine, (which was illegally seized by Joseph Stalin during World War II. ) Parts of Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union at different times during the 20th century, and many of the people who live in Ukraine speak Russian.
  • Mr. Putin, the long-time leader of Russia, initiated a military invasion of Ukraine.
  • The Russian people do not necessarily agree with the war, and there have been many Russian protests against it.
  • This is happening a long way from here and you are safe.
  • This is a good example of why it is so important to use our words and work things out when we get mad. Physical fighting hurts people and does not solve anything.

Preteens

Kids aged ten and up will be very interested in what's happening, so don't hesitate to discuss it with them. However, be aware that their sophistication can mask anxiety. Always start by asking what they've heard, what they think about it, and what they've been wondering anything about what is happening. 

Acknowledge their fears without dismissing them: "Your friend said there could be nuclear war? That's a very frightening thought. I don't think that will happen, but I understand why the idea would scare you. Sweetheart, thanks for telling me that you were worrying about this.  I will keep you safe no matter what."

Acknowledge that the situation is tragic, and consider with your child what your family can do to help, such as raising money to donate.

Teens

If you have a Teen, why not take the opportunity to have discussions that develop critical thinking, values and media literacy?  You can discuss all of the above, and ask questions that lead to deeper discussion, like:

  • "Do you think it should be a crime to invade another country?"
  • "What do you think you would do if you were a Russian and disagreed with the war?"
  • "Why do you think that the rest of the world is using sanctions against Russia instead of a military answer? Do you think the sanctions will work? Why or why not?"

After you've talked a bit, suggest that you and your teen check out some good sources of information about what's happening. For instance, take a look at the NPR website to find audio reporting on how everyday Russians are feeling the impact from sanctions, or how Russian police jailed children who took flowers and 'No to War' signs to Ukraine's embassy. Or read together about how the War Crimes court prosecutor has opened an investigation into Ukraine, at Reuters.

Teens are in the process of shaping their world-views, so it's important that they have an opportunity to feel they can contribute positively in the face of catastrophic world events. Talk with your teen about how even small gestures can make a difference, and suggest that you and your teen might want to work together to raise some money to donate to life-saving and relief efforts.