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How do I talk to my children about the war in Ukraine?

As the 24-hour news cycle continues to broadcast the shocking events unfolding in Ukraine, we asked Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Jane Gilmour to share her advice on navigating conversations about the war with children and teens.

By Dr Jane Gilmour | Last updated Mar 4, 2022

Children protesting Ukraine invasion

Talking about serious news events raises many questions for parents of children and teens. Should I bring it up at all? How can I answer their questions without making them worried? What can I do if my child is worrying about news events all the time? How can I help my teenager manage social media reports of current events?  But allowing time for open conversations about difficult subjects is an opportunity for you to be present as your child processes what's going on around them.  Here are some of my top tips for dealing with difficult conversations:

Should I bring it up at all?

Given that so many children and adults are discussing world events right now in some shape or form, it’s unlikely that they'll be completely unaware. In some cases, children will have heard snippets of news or perhaps overheard parents’ chat at the school gatesVery young children - and indeed infants - pick up ideas and emotions even if they haven’t got the language to talk about it. Offering even the very youngest of children a framework will help them make sense of what is happening around them.

So keep an ear out for what they are hearing, then explain and translate it into terms that are understandable and less threatening. Young children need their information delivered in simple and concrete terms. Use an analogy that is recognisable in their world (for example, if someone takes something that doesn’t belong to them, it’s not OK). 

How can I answer their questions without making them worried?

Don’t assume you know what's on their mind. Some children may worry their school will be closed (remember their recent experiences during the pandemic), while others might be wondering what ‘NATO’ is, so it’s a good tip to start with ‘what do you want to know?’ - notice that’s a different question from ‘What are you worried about?’ 

Be honest. In times of uncertainty, it’s never more important for your child to have a strong, secure and trusting relationship with you. If you tell your child something that isn't true, it may harm your relationship and their sense of stability.  Acknowledge this is a serious event but many countries are working together to figure out what to do. It might also be useful to point out that day-to-day life for your child will be the same. And of course, show empathy for the families that are currently vulnerable and under threat. 

If your child asks a question, you might be tempted to bat it away and say, ‘don’t worry about that.’ Be sure you answer it, otherwise, your child might fill the knowledge gap with worries (often inaccurate or extremely unlikely scenarios), information from another child or social media. Their questions are your chance to help them understand the world’s events in a safe, calm and measured environment. It’s OK to say you don’t know the answer. If it’s a factual question, you could fact check together using an age-appropriate and accurate information source. 

The way that you act and talk about the situation will strongly influence your child’s sense of danger about it. The single most powerful thing that you can do in times of uncertainty is to transmit calm. Endless reassuring statements from parents (‘don’t worry’) are likely counterproductive. Evidence shows that calm, practical and open discussions while maintaining all your family’s usual routines are the most effective ways to make children feel safe. Keep calm and carry on.

What can I do if my child is worrying about the news all the time?

If your child is feeling anxious, hold in mind that it is an understandable reaction to extraordinary events. It doesn’t mean that they have a mental health disorder. Remember that everyone experiences difficult emotions, like anxiety, from time to time and understanding that it is normal to feel all sorts of emotions, is an important part of wellbeing. In general, it’s a good idea to make a habit of encouraging your child to name both positive and negative emotions, so that they learn to link feelings in their body or thoughts in their head, with a label. The capacity to describe emotions is a skill like any other and it needs regular practice, but this ability will mean your child learns to express and manage emotions appropriately - and that is key to good mental health. 

Have a regular check-in time for questions and worries. This tip is a good one for family life, whatever the circumstances, but particularly useful for anxious children. Ask your child to record questions or worries that pop up during the day (write, draw or record voice notes) and save them up to discuss later at your check-in. If they have a lot questions, agree to a time limit and come back to them at the next check-in time and so on. This has two positive effects, first, recording thoughts ‘outside our head’ sometimes offers a different perspective and second, even primary-aged children may notice a difference between intense feelings ‘in the moment’ and worries feeling less intense after they're ‘parked’ for a bit. You could ask them to give their worries a mark out of 10 to show how worried they felt at the time and in comparison to how they feel at your check-in. Simply noticing that ‘no feeling is final’ (as the poet, Rilke wrote) is an incredible wellbeing habit.

How can I help my teenager manage social media reports of current events? 

Older teenagers might be watching more news at this time either on 24-hour news stations or on social media. If you find your child is consuming news more than they would usually, ask – kindly - why? They might be interested in world politics or they may be watching it obsessively which is likely anxiety-provoking – it will depend on your child’s personality and so on. In the case of anxious and obsessive news consumption, watch the news together, limit it to once a day and afterwards ask what they took from it, so you can check what they heard.  

If your teenager tells you something they have heard on social media about the news, be sure to take the chance to discuss it with them. Many parents report that they feel irritated that their teens don’t get current event information from more conventional news sources, but if you dismiss these sources, they will likely feel ashamed and may not come to you again. So make it your business to show an interest, ask to look at the information together, and with a genuinely collaborative approach, help them figure out if it’s accurate, and discuss the difference between a fact and an opinion. You are helping them learn to critically evaluate any information that they consume, which has life-long benefits.

Dr Jane Gilmour, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital and co-author of How to Have Incredible Conversations with Your Child and The Incredible Teenage Brain