Today’s post is by Momentous parent educator, Alma Villareal.
Many parents I work with in my parent education work are asking for support on how to talk to kids about the war in Ukraine and what kids are hearing and asking about war. Here are a few of my tips for how to have these conversations with kids.
Take care of yourself first.
It’s important to have your own feelings in check before approaching this conversation with kids. For more on how to care for yourself before having these conversations, read this post.
Gather the facts.
When talking about complex topics such as war with children, it’s important to start with the facts. This might mean doing a bit of your own research before talking about it with kids. Use your own words but keep it short and simple. For example, with the Ukraine/Russia conflict, you might say something along the lines of, “Historically, Russia and Ukraine have had many conflicts throughout the years. Ukraine was controlled by Russia for a long period of time, but for the past 30 years has been independent. Russia is fighting to take control once again. Being independent is important to Ukraine, as they are proud of their independence, which provides them with opportunities such as freedom of speech and freedom to vote.”
A great tool to help with this conversation is a world map. Showing kids a map of the world can demonstrate the geographical distance between the U.S. and Eastern Europe and can point out that Russia and Ukraine are neighbors. I knew that Russia was large, but even pulling up a world map and seeing it really made me pause and realize it.
Sticking with the facts is helpful for two reasons: 1) It takes emotion out of it and gives kids just the information they need to know. You can layer in your feelings about it later (more on that below), but the facts are important for them to really understand what is going on. And 2) It provides a learning opportunity. Every day, there are many lessons that we can teach our children, and this conversation around Ukraine and Russia can provide us with many important teaching moments. Conversations about the facts of the conflict can also layer in details about history, geography, freedom of speech, culture, independence, economy, geography and more.
Keep it age appropriate.
It is important to be mindful of a child’s age and maturity. Young children only have the capacity for very brief and simple information. Older children will want more nuance and detail. For families with kids of vastly different ages, it may mean having separate conversations to ensure that they are age appropriate for each child, rather than discussing it at the dinner table or in the car as a family.
When scary things happen in the news, often a child’s first thought is, “Am I in danger?” Many kids will wonder if we are at war, if their own lives and families are at risk. Depending on what they’ve heard, they may worry that this conflict is about to happen in their own neighborhood.
Adults can provide reassurance by explaining that, while there is a war, it is not here. If a child asks, “Are we at war?” an appropriate response might be, “Russia and Ukraine are at war. Would you like to see where that is on the map?” Again, pointing out the distance can help kids when they feel scared.
Children are often receiving many messages – from school, the news, what they overhear adults talking about, social media, and more. Adults can lean in by asking simple “I wonder” questions, such as, “I wonder what you’ve heard about what is happening in Ukraine?”
Adults may be surprised to know what messages kids are receiving on TikTok or on the playground. That curiosity posture can lead to awareness, for parents to really understand what their kids are listening to and hearing every day.
Mirror the emotion.
When a child expresses an emotional response, an adult can mirror this response rather than try to fix it. Yes, adults can and should comfort a child so they are not fearful that they are in danger. And yet, if a child says, “I feel sad about what is happening”, an adult doesn’t need to cheer a child up or diminish their feelings. Instead, the adult can say, “Yes, I understand that. This situation is very sad and scary.” Or, “I feel sad for the people living there, too.”
Mirroring a child’s emotions helps a child feel as though they’re not the only one who feels how they feel. It can be reassuring to know that even adults share these emotions.
Be transparent and honest.
It is so hard as adults to admit to a child when we don’t know something. Our instinct is to protect, and we also have pressure to know everything and be able to answer a child’s questions or concerns. However, there are going to be times when we really don’t know the answer to things. Whether it’s context or history we haven’t learned, or the nature of an ever-changing event, we will find times where we just don’t know. It’s okay to admit that we don’t know. When we do, we can simply say, “That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. Let’s look it up together.” Or, “Let me look that up and I’ll let you know what I find out.”
Pay attention to their responses.
Pay attention to what questions or comments children make. Young children may narrow in on something specific or may not respond much at all. Older children may engage in a lot of back-and-forth or may roll their eyes and walk away. Even if it seems they’re not listening, that doesn’t mean they aren’t. Keep conversations short, but allow opportunities to talk and be present, especially with older children. Remember that peers are very important, so be curious about what their peers are saying, even, and especially, on social media.
Many children, including teens, are still learning the ability to express what they are feeling with words. Some parents say, “My kids don’t seem to care. I talk about these things with them, but they act like it’s no big deal.” This may be because they don’t yet have the ability to express their feelings in words. Pay attention to their actions and behaviors, how they express themselves through play. If they start having behavior outside the norm for them, such as anger, outbursts, aggression or disengagement, chase the why and ask if it could be related to something they’re feeling about this or something they heard.
Since we live in a very diverse country, we want to be sure that children know that people from other countries are our neighbors, friends and colleagues. Having conversations and exposure and learning about other cultures is important. Remind children that most people in this world are kind and compassionate. Teach them to care about all people.
For more on empathy in a time of war, read this post.
Find a way to feel less helpless.
Many of us, kids and adults alike, feel helpless at times like these. In order to combat this, you can find ways to do something about these feelings. Consider making a donation to the International Red Cross, sending homemade cards to other children, or encourage children to express their feelings through art or music. Even if you’re not sure what to do, toss some ideas out and see what resonates. Together, you can send the message that no matter what we’re feeling, we can make a difference.
If you’re looking for additional support, consider one of our virtual parent education courses. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.