Over the past several months, we have all witnessed the devastation of the Russian attacks on Ukraine. There are endless images and stories of death, destruction, and the flight of refugees, along with tales of heroism. Maybe your kids have seen frightening videos on social media or the news and are asking questions, or perhaps they are exhibiting signs of anxiety. How should you talk to your children about the crisis?
Children often take their cues from parents, and thus you need to process your own emotions before attempting to discuss the issues with your child. While it is appropriate to show sadness and concern, you should feel like you can speak calmly and avoid overwhelming them with your feelings.
You can also protect them by minimizing their exposure to highly distressing information. Avoid flooding them with television news and images. Monitor the content of adult conversation within earshot. This does not mean you should avoid talking to kids about the war. It is important to listen to their concerns and discuss these in an age-appropriate manner.
If your children fail to mention it on their own, do not be afraid to bring it up, as they are likely to have heard things. Regardless of their specific questions or concerns, it is important to assure children they are safe and create an open environment where they can ask questions. During your discussions, keep the following points in mind:
- You cannot protect your child from everything, and it’s essential for them to grow up to be well-informed, compassionate adults.
- Anticipating the types of questions they may ask will help you be more prepared to respond.
- Ask them what they have heard and how they feel, providing reassurances that it is normal to feel worried or sad.
- Provide them with basic information about the conflict using age-appropriate language.
- Correct any misinformation which may be causing unnecessary worry.
- Show them a world map and emphasize the distance of the conflicts.
- If your family is more directly affected, such as those with relatives in Ukraine or military families, avoid giving blanket reassurances that cannot be guaranteed.
- Focus on positive efforts to keep people safe.
- Talk about the efforts of our government and those of other countries to help others and humanitarian organizations.
- Consider suggesting ways for your own family to help, such as fundraising or sending supplies.
If these efforts do not seem to be adequate and your child is exhibiting excessive worry or sadness, do not hesitate to seek professional help for them. Encouraging open communication is the best way to help children sort through their feelings.
Dr. Jayne Schachter is a clinical psychologist with more than 30 years of experience in working with children, adolescents, adults, and families. She provides cognitive-behavioral treatment through individual psychotherapy, parent counseling, and group therapy. Her areas of expertise include (but are not limited to) the evaluation and treatment of anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, behavior problems, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, effects of divorce, toileting issues, gender identity concerns, and coping with medical illness.