How to Speak to Kids About War

Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

The world can be a scary place. Here we are, just coming out of a global pandemic. And now the events in Ukraine are raising levels of anxiety, fear, and overwhelm all over again. How can we speak to our kids about war and help them cope?

Be a safe space

First and foremost, our job as parents is to provide safety and security to our child, and to support them emotionally.

We might feel anxious or worried ourselves, or have discussions and disputes with family members or our partner. But we should pay attention to spare the children from it. Hearing these will increase their sense of insecurity and fear.

The world is beyond our control to make safe, but we are in control of creating a safe environment at home.

Work to limit their intake

Obviously, controlling the information our kids are accessing is easier when they are pre-schoolers. Older children with their own devices, on the other hand, could be exposed to an overwhelming amount of information, much of it false. Filtering with parental control options is useful. But we cannot control every source, and are kids are exposed to things that can be even scarier than the actual news.

So, what can we do? The key is communication, appropriate to our child’s age.

How to speak to your kids about war

When it comes to our kids we can forget the golden rule of communication.

When in doubt, ask.

Before you lambast your child with a lecture that ends up giving them more information they don’t need, or leaves them even more confused? It's worth asking if anything is upsetting them, or what they know about the world lately they might want to talk about. Then targeting the conversation to match their own unique worries.

How to speak to your toddler or pre-schooler

Toddlers have limited understanding of what’s happening, but can feel the tension and anxiety around them. If they have picked up on things and have questions, use words and scenarios they can understand. "Some adults are upset as some men are fighting, like they fight with their brother, but it's far away and everyone is safe at home".

It’s important to provide a sense of comfort, with hugs and quality time together where you do not come across as a bundle of anxiety.

Unicef also suggests to consider drawing and stories when talking about conflict and war, which can help open up the discussion with younger children.

How to speak to your child aged six to 10

They will pick up information even if you try to limit it. The best is to ask what they know and what they want to know. Explain simply what war means, that they are not in danger, and then answer all the questions they have using age appropriate language. And watch that your language is also non-violent.

Here Unicef points out that it's wise to "avoid labels like 'bad people' or 'evil', and instead use it as an opportunity to encourage compassion, such as for the families forced to flee their homes".

Some children need details to feel safe. You can always get out the map out or do some research together.

How to speak to your child aged 10 and over

At this age you can teach your child to use reliable sources. Create the space for them to really speak and lead the conversation, and then answer their questions.

Don't make things up if you aren't sure, this could create anxiety if your child senses your uncertainty or thinks you are lying to them. There's nothing wrong with admitting you don't have an immediate answer and suggesting you find one together.

And don't overlook your teen no matter how blasé they might pretend to be, or however informed and confident. They still need you to provide a safety net and emotional security. To ease any anxiety, you can help them find their own best coping mechanism, whether that is sports, creativity, or meditation.

Raise your child's coping skills

Children start self-regulating at preschool age. And they can benefit from modern coping tools just like adults can. If you yourself are working with deep breathing or yoga to calm anxiety, for example, why not share it with your kids?

A research overview of studies done around yoga, mindfulness, and children found that these techniques could help with behavioural self-regulation and emotion regulation in children as young as three to five years of age.

Help your child feel some semblance of control

Other than teaching coping skills, it’s important to empower our children with a sense of control.

Obviously, they won’t be able to control current world political events, but they can do their bit to help. They can find a way to collect donations, volunteer, or help in other ways. Leading by example of helping others in need, you will contribute to raise responsible and kind humans.

Is parenting overwhelming you lately? Book a therapist now who gets it and take the time to unload and restructure in a totally confidential, non-judgemental environment.

Liz Szalai is a freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in psychology. She has a  passion for destigmatising mental health. See more about her at @lizszalaiwriter.

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