The horrific war in Ukraine is still going on and taking a ghastly mental toll on the rest of the world, including the millions of us who are watching at a safe distance thousands of miles away. It’s almost impossible to turn on the television or access social media without being exposed to agonizing scenes of the war’s devastation. This affects every nation, every socioeconomic strata, every age group – and that includes your children.
It can be daunting to talk to kids about war, and it may feel better to preserve your children’s comfort by trying to keep the topic out of their awareness. But just because they aren’t hearing it from you, doesn’t mean kids aren’t getting information elsewhere, said Lee Chambers, a psychologist based in the United Kingdom. With so many images of violence and so few answers, your kids likely are aware of the fighting even if it’s far away — and they are probably terrified.
Jennifer Thater is the Director of Mental Health Services at Community Action Marin. She suggests that parents can set the stage for a conversation about their children’s fears during a shared activity.
“Start a dialog by saying, ‘Can I ask you a question about something?’ If they say yes, then you can ask ‘Have you heard about XYZ? I’m interested in telling you a little bit, just so you know. Is it ok if I talk to you more about this?” “This opens the door to communication”, Thater says. “Your response to your child really should be based on your own family values and the age appropriateness for your child. You can determine what is of your child’s benefit to know, deliver answers in a way that’s helpful for both of you, and see what you’d like to do with the information as a result.”
Starting the conversation by asking if our kids would like to hear our questions and possibly learn more about troubling social issues gives young people the opportunity to opt out of a conversation with us if it isn’t the right time for them. This is important because kids can be more reluctant to receiving hard information if the conversation begins with parents asserting the time and the place the conversation needs to take place.
If we ask for our kid’s permission to have conversations about complex social issues, we not only give them a sense of personal power that can strengthen their ability to ask helpful questions, we also send the message that they have a right to participate in the decision making around when these kinds of discussions take place.
If our children happen to say “no” when we ask them if we can have an ask-and-share session with them, then we can close the conversation by asking them if it would be ok for us to touch base about it with them at another time. More than likely their natural curiosity, along with what the begin to hear on the news and from friends, will have result in their wanting to be part of a conversation another time.
Psychologists Chambers, Wendy Rice and Chloe Carmichael agree that watching your children for unusual behavior is key to determining whether they are affected by what they’re seeing and hearing. And if your child exhibits those signs, you can help by taking comforting action.
That action could mean looking for age-appropriate information together, Chambers said. Point out what people are trying to do to help…. Suggest and facilitate doing projects to raise money for charities supporting Ukraine or writing letters to soldiers, Rice added.
Books are a great way to open up younger children’s understanding of the world and foster empathy. Here are a few picture books that can help:
“What Is a Refugee?” (Ages 3-7) by Elise Gravel
This book is a simple, accessible introduction to what it means to be a refugee.
“Lubna and Pebble” (Ages 4-8) written by Wendy Meddour and illustrated by Daniel Egnéus
A young girl holds on to her special pebble at a refugee camp — only to give it to a child who needs it even more.
“Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey” (Ages 4-8) written by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes; illustrated by Sue Cornelison
The true story of how aid workers in Greece helped an Iraqi refugee family reunite with their beloved pet.
“Once I Was Very Very Scared” written by Chandra Ghosh Ippen and illustrated by Erich Ippen (Ages 3-7)
A little squirrel in the forest announces that he was once very, very scared, and finds out that he is not alone.
According to Jill Murphy, vice president and editor-in-chief at Common Sense Media, talking helps. “Don’t feel like you need to cover everything in one sitting,” she says. Note how they’re reacting and give them extra hugs. Mostly, just be there for your kids.”