Russia-Ukraine war: How to talk to kids about the conflict

·Contributor, Yahoo Life UK
·7-min read
Parents are struggling with what to tell their children about the Russia-Ukraine war. (Getty Images)
Parents are struggling with what to tell their children about the Russia-Ukraine war. (Getty Images)

Since news of the Russia-Ukraine war broke, many parents have at the receiving end of questions from their children about what it all means.

The video footage and images of tanks, explosions and bloodied victims aren’t easy for grown-ups to digest, let alone children, so knowing how or even whether to pass on that information to little ones is a debate many parents are currently wrestling, including Holly Willoughby.

"How do I explain this to my children?" the TV presenter and mum-of-three wrote on Instagram alongside a powerful image of soldiers in a tank. "I was asked questions last night I didn’t have the answers for…"

Just like the This Morning host, many parents will have been left floundering as they field questions from concerned children who are picking up on words like 'bombs', 'attacks' and 'World War Three’, without a full understanding of what’s going on.

"A key part of a child’s growth is the development of a curious mind about the world around them," explains Dr Jeri Tikare, clinical psychologist at digital mental health platform, Kooth. "At this point, it can feel like they are asking a million questions which can sometimes leave one feeling overwhelmed."

Read more: Russia invading Ukraine: anxiety coping tips for events you have no control over

Dr Tikare says this inquisitive stage of a child's development is actually very useful from an evolutionary perspective as it helps with an understanding of the world around them (what is dangerous and what isn’t) and subsequently helps with facilitating their survival.

"Bearing this in mind, I can imagine what it must have felt like for children over the past few weeks as they have had to contend with rumours of imminent war and may now have heard the news that a war has started," he continues.

"Over the last couple of years we have been facing challenging and unprecedented times concerning the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak which has left a lot of people, including children, feeling scared and experiencing increased levels of stress, anxiety, and difficulties with sleep. Therefore, as human beings geared up for survival it makes sense that our normal response to a threat might be a range of emotions, one of which is anxiety."

Experts suggest starting an open and honest conversation. (Getty Images)
Experts suggest starting an open and honest conversation. (Getty Images)

To protect little ones from feeling anxious about the situation, the temptation for many parents could be to switch off the TV and gloss over the terrifying truth.

But if parents don’t frame something like the current conflict for their children, they will either fill in the blanks themselves or pull something together from nuggets of information gleaned from their friends in the playground.

And there’s no guarantee then that what they conjure up will be age-appropriate or even accurate. So it’s worth talking to them first.

Read more: How to spot anxiety in your child – and how to help them

Try not to overexpose children to news of the situation. (Getty Images)
Try not to overexpose children to news of the situation. (Getty Images)

But how do we begin to talk to our children about war and other scary world events? Dr. Tikare and Dr. Amanda Gummer, child psychologist and founder of The Good Play Guide, provide their tips.

Be as truthful as you can

In a way that feels safe, uncomplicated and is easy enough to understand. "This can be tricky, but it can be an opportunity to be creative," says Dr Tikare. He suggests using fairy tales, stories and other methods to shape their understanding.

"It is important for us not to hide things away from them because it is better for them to hear it from us, their people of safeness, as opposed to reading it or hearing it from others."

Also bearing in mind the curious nature of the mind, Dr Tikare says it is inevitable that for things that they do not understand they might go-ahead to research and look for answers.

"It can be helpful if they get their information from a reliable source which can feel containing and reassuring," Dr Tikare adds. "However, it is important to share information at a level that is developmentally right for the child and just enough to help the child feel contained and safe."

Watch: Tackling children's anxiety by making worries come to life

Don't overload them

One of the common mistakes parents make is giving children too much information. "Try and answer any questions simply and honestly, and check if they have any more questions but don't go into lots of detail right from the start," explains Dr Gummer.

Use an analogy your child might understand

"For example to understand they are not responsible for world events, explain that they can’t control the weather," suggests Dr Gummer. "You could even ask them to try to control the weather to show that their behaviour has no effect."

Limit their exposure

After educating them about war, validating and normalising the anxiety or feelings they might be experiencing, Dr Tikare says it can be helpful to try not to overexpose them to information. "As we know, this is very common in times like these on the television, social media, and other platforms, and this can be very distressing and exacerbate their distress," Dr Tikare explains.

Normalise their emotions

It might be helpful to talk to them about the range of emotions that they could be experiencing and normalise them. "Encourage them to speak to you about their concerns and reassure them that everything will be okay," Dr Tikare suggests.

Keep the conversation going

As well as their feelings about the current situation, this can be an opportunity to open up a conversation about their worries in general.

"Life can be hard and busy and sometimes children are aware of this and might not want to disturb you," Dr Tikare explains. "Therefore, it might be helpful to make a conscious effort to let them know that you are mindful of how difficult it can be and reassure them that you are available to talk about things.

"Giving them extra love and attention at this time can be helpful, especially at difficult times like this," he adds.

Give them opportunities to express their emotions

In different ways such as writing, drawing, stories, songs, and things that feel helpful for the child.

"Some children find a feelings box helpful," Dr Tikare suggests. "It might also be helpful to introduce them to some simple relaxation techniques such as taking three deep, slow breaths, breathing in for a count of three and out for three.

Upping the fun can be a good distraction for children right now. (Getty Images)
Upping the fun can be a good distraction for children right now. (Getty Images)

Read more: 'Anxiety' chosen by children as word of the year for 2021

Up the fun

According to Dr Tikare playing and having fun with your children at this time can be helpful because it can provide a sense of distraction and help them feel more relaxed.

Look for stress signs

Dr Tikare suggests trying to be mindful of symptoms of stress that could present as physical health symptoms such as headaches, stomach-ache, changes to appetite, eating and weight, nausea, difficulties with sleep and explore these difficulties a bit more with the child.

"For some children, hearing about the war might mean they want to avoid going to school or going out in general, therefore it can be helpful to ensure that we encourage and support them to keep going out and stay active," he adds.

"Avoidance of places reinforces the idea that there is something to fear and reduces the chances of getting opportunities to challenge the notion that being outside is unsafe."

Consider your own reactions

Children are perceptive and are likely to pick up on your emotions, so try to be mindful of your own reactions to the news.

"This is because one of the ways children learn and develop is via observing and then modelling adult behaviour," Dr Tikare explains. "Hence, children can pick up anxieties or worries displayed by parents. Therefore, a contained reaction to the news can be helpful for children, as despite the nature of the news, they can learn to feel contained because of your reaction and vice versa."

Dr Gummer suggests letting children know that you don’t have all the answers and find the situation confusing/scary at times too.

"Share your coping strategies with them and encourage them to develop their own," she adds.

Watch: Ukrainians shelter in Kyiv metro amid Russia threat