Russia’s attack on Ukraine has not only caused international outrage, but also stress and fear for people around the world—including children.
Nowadays, kids have easier access to newsfeeds through social media, and seeing images of violence can cause concern and anxiety.
While it can be daunting to figure out where to even start, having these conversations is important, experts say. Creating an open dialogue lets children know their parents can help them process their emotions, says Mari Kurahashi, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Stanford University Children’s Health and co-director of the Stanford Parenting Center.
Here, Kurahashi offers several suggestions for parents to best help their kids understand this difficult situation:
How should parents approach a conversation about the invasion of Ukraine with their kids?
Children will have different levels of understanding, so there are a couple things to keep in mind when you speak with your child—how old are they and what’s their temperament like?
For younger children under the age of 5, use simple language. A lot of detail is not going to be helpful, and it can add to the confusion. So, maybe use some visuals with a map of the world and show your child where we are and where Ukraine is located. Then, consider their personality; for instance, if your child gets anxious about things, limiting information more is better.
If your child is a teenager, it can be helpful and more age appropriate to have a dialogue because they’ve most likely heard about what’s happening on some level. You can check in with them, starting the conversation with something like, “There’s been a lot in the news about Ukraine, what have you heard?” And then maybe following that up with, “What do you think about what’s going on? How are you feeling?”
At the same time, let them know you care for them and will do whatever you can to keep them safe.
How can we create a space where children are comfortable expressing their emotions?
Parents can check in with their kids regularly—spending time together without devices or lectures and being interested and curious about their child’s thoughts on the world. Then, when children do communicate their thoughts and feelings, parents should try to remember to respond first with validation.
Often, parents will try to fix something or unintentionally be dismissive, and even though they mean to help, the effect is the child feels dismissed or invalidated. Validation doesn’t mean you have to agree with what your child says—it’s showing you understand where they’re coming from. After that validation, it’s fair for parents to have a discussion or to educate, but that initial reaction can be really important with how comfortable children feel expressing themselves.
As adults, we tend to “doom scroll,” or otherwise overload ourselves with coverage of difficult news. How can we make sure we don’t pass on our own feelings of anxiety?
What we know is that anxiety is very contagious, and our children can be sensitive to parents’ stress. It’s important for parents to take care of themselves and model healthy behaviors, like using a device for an appropriate amount of time and striving towards a balance of being informed while not “doom scrolling.”
What signs should I look for to determine if my child is upset?
Signs of anxiety can be things like trouble sleeping at night, more clinginess, difficulty going to school, changes in appetite, or changes in interest in what they typically enjoy.
If your child tends to be more worried or sensitive, and in general, it’s important for parents to monitor how much exposure to media or images they have. Maybe that’s being careful how often the news is on TV or limiting social media usage. Parents should also be aware of what kind of conversations are being discussed around the kids. Children can be impacted by observing their parents. So, if adults are having an emotional conversation, maybe go for a walk and have that talk outside.
Why is it important for parents to initiate conversations about hard news?
It’s important for children to know that it’s okay to talk about difficult topics with their parents. With anxiety, there’s a common phrase that we use: “Name it, to tame it.” Being able to talk about our feelings, worries, or what’s upsetting, even if it doesn’t change the situation, can help children feel a little better about the situation.
So having that open dialogue, listening to your children’s concerns, and showing them support allows children to feel comfortable discussing their feelings, especially when other tough topics or world events come up.
Another reason for these types of conversations is that there has been misinformation and disinformation spread across apps and other media platforms, so it’s also important to check in with our children about what they’ve heard and be able to correct things that might be misconstrued.
Children also can have very active imaginations, so maybe they hear a snippet of something on the radio and their mind creates a story around it that causes them distress. So being able to correct misinformation can be really important.
The final reason is that it’s important to teach our children to be compassionate and care about others who are suffering—even if they’re far away or we don’t know them. To encourage this, you can ask, “What do you think it feels like for people in this situation?” That can help them see things from another perspective. It’s also an opportunity instill helpfulness in a child and think of ways we can contribute.