Imagine if World War II or the Vietnam War had played out ‘live’ on television and computer screens all over the world?
In this age of 24/7 news cycles and ubiquitous social media, our children, like us, are experiencing the visceral day-to-day reality of war in the Ukraine.
Let’s not forget that the last two years have also seen children experience a worldwide pandemic already in their young lives.
The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has dominated the news streams and social media with images of violence and outrage. The events in Ukraine may cause anxiety and fear in young children and teens, now that kids have more access than ever to online information. So when a 7-year-old asks her mother, “Are we going to be bombed?” or your kids start to worry about things like World War III or nuclear weapons, it can feel impossible to assure them that everything is going to be alright.
Thankfully, there are multiple on-line sources of support for adults on how to talk with kids about the war.
In brighter news, March also brings the Spring Equinox which comes from two Latin words meaning ‘equal night.’ On the equinox, March 20th, the length of day and night is nearly equal in all parts of the world. And with the equinox, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere enjoy an increasing amount of sunlight hours, with earlier dawns and later sunsets! Happy Spring!!!
— Betty Long, RN, MHA, President/CEO, Guardian Nurses Health Advocates
Talking with Kids about War
Don’t Shelter Kids From the Reality of War and Conflict
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to talk about war to anyone. But, we know our world is far from perfect. And it’s especially difficult to talk with children about war. Given kids’ access to media, it’s near impossible to protect them from frightening and confusing world events. However, while your instincts may be to shield them from all the bad events in the world, kids today will find out this information somehow whether that’s from their friends, teachers, or sites like TikTok and YouTube.
It’s important not to dismiss children’s curiosity and anxiety about world events. Take them seriously and discuss what they’re seeing and hearing on the news together. By monitoring what they watch and read, you’re able to help kids avoid false sources of information that could be making their anxiety and fear of war even worse.
Listening to Concerns Without Making Them Worse
What you say to your children depends on their age, the questions they ask, and your own political and moral beliefs. Whatever you feel about what’s happening in Ukraine and other countries, you want to encourage children to continue to be curious about the world, to value peaceful resolutions to problems, and to feel free to come to you with questions and concerns.
General Guidelines for Explaining War to Children:
- Try to find out what your children already know about the war situation, and how they found out about it.
- Let them know that you understand that what is happening with the war is confusing and complicated.
- Let them know you’re glad to be talking with them about it. Share whatever your opinions and feelings are about bombings and attacks in the war. Allow your children to express their own opinions.
- Ask your children if they are worried and/or frightened about war. Even if they say, “No,” you are giving them permission to have those feelings and to talk about them if they choose.
- Whatever our feelings were about Putin and the Russian-Ukraine conflict, our children should know that their Russian classmates or other citizens are not bad people. Similarly to how in the U.S. parents should not demonize all Arabic people or Muslims are bad people after 9/11.
- This is a good opportunity to debunk stereotypes. Little kids are used to seeing the world in black and white or good vs. evil. However, real-life wars aren’t a Disney movie, so you need to be careful not to villainize other cultures and countries.
Kids’ feelings are real and the distress they may be feeling is perfectly normal. Make sure you validate your kids’ feelings and empathize with them through statements like “It can be scary to hear about wars, and there are alot of adults who feel scared too. But we will get through this together.”
Limit Media and News For Kids Younger Than 5
While kids in elementary and middle school are able to participate in productive conversations around big topics, explaining war gets tricky when dealing with young children, especially kids under 5. Be mindful of how you talk about violence and war in the news around your children, especially with other adults. If your kids see you upset or angry, it only reinforces their own worries.
Very young children can’t always verbalize their anxieties, but they may express them through things like crying or refusal to go outside. Too much anxiety can also lead to things like nightmares or wetting the bed if this distress is not addressed. Children under 5 should only get very limited information on the topic of war and the Ukraine and Russia situation. It’s often best to break things down into basic terms like, “Countries are very angry with each other at the moment and are fighting.”
Focus on things your child can control at the moment. Rather than making large, vague statements about the war stopping eventually, try something like “Tomorrow we’ll go to school, then we’ll go play soccer after, and have meatballs for dinner.” Giving young children a routine enforces a sense of normalcy for them that prevents them from constantly seeking reassurance for what happens in the future.
Encourage Giving Back and Helping Others
Volunteering and helping others is also a great way to give kids a sense of calm and control when talking about a crisis. (Heck, it can be good for adults, too!) Instead of letting them be overwhelmed, parents can turn major world events like the invasion of Ukraine into an opportunity to learn and give back together. Here are some ways that kids can give back and feel like they’re making a difference.
- Raise money for aid organizations through crafts or fundraisers
- Write letters to veterans or send care packages to support military members and their families
- Volunteer for organizations like Unicef, a humanitarian organization focused on helping children in crisis gain access to clean water and food.
One of the many wonderful things about children is that they love doing positive things for others and making a difference. As terrible as the global situation right now, seeing people coming together to lend a hand is inspiring and teaches both adults and children that there is hope. It will do us all good to remember that.